Protecting all workers from adverse heat effects

Oregon was among other western states to experience record-breaking temperatures late last month. Two climate scientists called the northwest heatwave the “most extreme in world weather records.”  As our thermometers displayed temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, at least 116 Oregonians lost their lives, including some while at work. This week Governor Brown tasked Oregon OSHA to immediately adopt an emergency heat illness prevention rule. In March 2020, Oregon Governor Brown issued Executive Order 20-24 (Directing State Agencies to Take Actions to Reduce and Regulate Green House Actions) which includes direction to Oregon OSHA and Oregon Health Authority to “jointly develop a proposal for standards to protect workplace employees from exposure to wildfire smoke and excessive heat.” Although Oregon OSHA and OHA have been leading this permanent workplace heat rule-making effort (along with one addressing smoke), including active participation of a diverse committee of members, it was wisely decided our workforce cannot wait the several months or more it might take for completion of this process and rule adoption. We have barely entered the month of July, and fear our hottest days could still lie ahead.

Today Oregon OSHA has released their temporary heat rule, and although some of the state has been able to enjoy a few cooler days, we need to prepare for tomorrow and beyond. Read the press release. Many resources are available to employers to properly protect staff. Most safety and health professionals have given and received heat stress training in our past. We now need to also look for rules, tips and advice to address some of the tougher questions such as “how hot is too hot” to work, and “is there a temperature in which nobody should work outdoors” in addition to implementing proper prevention measures and precautions.

Here are some important reminders and resources to prepare our workforce for the rest of summer and beyond.

  1.  Become familiar with Oregon OSHA’s temporary heat rule. Read the text of Temporary Rules to Address Employee Exposure to High Ambient Temperatures. Its key components include:
    1. Understanding the scope of the rule (e.g., it applies when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees);
    2. Understanding definitions of terms like heat index, relative humidity, shade, acclimatization and more;
    3. Providing access to shade and drinking water;
    4. Providing supervisor and employee training;
    5. Employing high heat practices when the ambient heat index is greater than 90 degrees F (including practices like buddies, communications, rest breaks);
    6. Develop an emergency medical plan; and address acclimatization of employees.
  2. Create a Heat Illness Prevention Plan for your work area and team. Oregon OSHA has simple plans in English and Spanish. Downloading the sample plan is just the beginning: complete it appropriately for your work site, train all employees on it, insist on complying with its specifics and update it as needed.
  3. Look at other publications, training and information provided by:
    1. Oregon OSHA: Heat stress publications, regulations and video resources.
    2. NIOSH: Resources on Heat Stress; OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool App

Remember the basics of heat stress prevention to ensure everyone’s safety. When we experience heat stress or exhaustion, our brains don’t work as well as they might normally and make us particularly susceptible to making bad decisions that can affect safety, life and health. Provide training to supervisors and workers, pre-plan and develop ways to communicate with all of your workforce so people are supported and not left in isolation during high heat conditions.