DOL issues employer mandates for protecting workers from excessive heat

The requirements include providing paid breaks every two hours when temperatures soar in indoor workplaces like kitchens, as well as providing cool-down areas, drinking water and establishment of a safety "buddy system."
California is set for its second heatwave of the season. | Photo: Shutterstock

Restaurants with more than 10 employees would be required to draft a plan for protecting their workers from dangerous heat under new employer regulations proposed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Labor, or DOL.

The proposed rules require that the safety measures be brainstormed in collaboration with employees. In addition, someone on premises would be designated as a “heat safety coordinator” to ensure the precautions are taken.

Those steps are largely common-sensical. They include:

  • Providing access to “suitably cool” drinking water, at a volume of 1 quart per hour per employee.
  • Extending cooldown opportunities at the rate of one 15-minute break for every two hours of excessive heat. A meal break can count toward the requirement, and no pay is required in that instance if state or local laws specify that mealtimes are off the clock.
  • Ensuring the break area offers either air conditioning, shade or good air flow, and ideally some form of dehumidification. The designated area must allow for two-way communication between employer and employee, so the status of the workers can be constantly monitored for symptoms of overheating.
  • Establishing a system for employees to monitor one another during times of dangerous heat for signs of ill effects. The setup can either be a mandatory “buddy system,” where workers are paired to keep watch on each other, or via scrutiny by a supervisor or heat safety coordinator. No more than 20 employees can be monitored at a time under the latter arrangement.
  • Drafting “acclimatization protocols” for enabling new employees to adjust to high heat. The workers can’t work in the high heat area more than 20% of their shift on Day One, 40% on the second day, 60% on the third and 80% on the fourth. A slightly more lenient schedule is required for employees who are returning to the job after a break of at least two weeks.
  • Posting high heat alerts in indoor areas where the ambient temperature regularly soars above 120 degrees.

The Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Plan, or HIIPP, must also cover what employees should do if a co-worker shows signs of being dangerously affected by the heat. Included in that section must be a list of all relevant emergency phone numbers, as well as suggestions on how to get an affected employee to emergency medical care.

The employer is required in those situations to pull the suffering employee off the job, do whatever they can to cool down the worker or otherwise provide first aid, and seek emergency medical care.

The HIIPP must be reviewed after any heat-related incident, and not less than once per year.

The proposed rules say the precautions should be in place for an initial heat index—a measure that takes into account the ambient humidity—of at least 80 degrees or a straight temperature of 90 degrees.

The Labor Department issued the requirements as a proposed rule, meaning stakeholders and other members of the public can provide input before final regulations are drafted and promulgated. The mandates take effect 150 days after those final rules are issued.

The regulations would be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

The precautions were issued in the heart of what is expected to be the hottest U.S. summer ever recorded. Over the Fourth of July holiday, temperatures in much of California are expected to top 110 degrees. Other areas of the country are just emerging from a heat wave that swept from the West Coast all the way through New England.

Five states require employers to take steps for protecting employees from excessive heat in the workplace, but there are no codified federal requirements.

“We have long advocated for an OSHA heat standard,” Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in response to the proposed national rules. “We are motivated and encouraged by the latest news from OSHA, as it signifies a vital advancement in worker safety. ... As climate change raises global temperatures, comprehensive heat protection standards are increasingly urgent."

The proposal of heat precautions also drew praise from Service Employees International Union. It went so far as to assert that the White House's effort to protect workers is a reason to vote for Biden over Donald Trump in the November presidential election.

"We can’t afford to elect leaders who ignore climate change and aren’t concerned about our safety— especially someone who dismisses these jobs as ‘Black’ and ‘Hispanic’ jobs," said President April Verrett, referring to Trump's characterization of some positions created under Biden as "Black jobs."

"Multiracial working class voters will cast the deciding votes in this election, and this heat will not fade from our memory come November,” Verrett said in her statement. 

Update: Comments from SEIU's president were added post-publication. 

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