Workers Without Federal Heat Safety Standards

Every year, many workers become sick from occupational heat exposure – and some fatally injured. However, there isn’t a federal standard requiring employers to protect their workers from heat stress or hold them accountable for workplace violations.

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Worker Safety – General Duty Clause

Under the OSH Act of 1970 – General Duty Clause, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized serious hazards in the workplace (which includes heat-related hazards).
Section 5. Duties

  • (a) Each employer —
  • (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;

Currently, OSHA inspectors have to rely on a  general requirement to provide a safe workplace when determining whether to cite an employer for heat violations.  But it is not clear how employers can protect workers, be held accountable, or how violations can be reported. OSHA has issued citations against employers because workers were endangered by high heat. But the General Duty Clause carries with it a high burden of proof, which would not be the case with a specific standard.

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Employer Heat Illness Prevention Program

An employer with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat illness prevention program by:

  • Providing workers with water, rest and shade.
  • Allowing new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and taking more frequent breaks as they acclimatize, or building a tolerance for working in the heat.
  • Planning for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
  • Monitoring workers for signs of illness.

The different types of heat illness include: heat exhaustion, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat rashes, and heat stroke. Heat can also increase workers’ risk of injuries, as it may result in sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness, and may reduce brain function responsible for reasoning ability, creating additional hazards.

construction_worker_safetyImage Source: Shutterstock

Recommended Federal Standard Provisions

The report and the petition indicate that a federal standard should:

  • Provide mandatory rest breaks with increased frequency in times of extreme heat and significant exertion.
  • Provide access to shaded and otherwise cool conditions for employees to rest during breaks.
  • Provide personal protective equipment, such as water-cooled and air-cooled garments.
  • Make provisions for adequate hydration.
  • Implement heat acclimatization plans to help new workers safely adjust to hot conditions.
  • Regularly monitor both the environmental heat load and employees’ metabolic heat loads during hot conditions.
  • Medically monitor at-risk employees.
  • Notify employees of heat stress hazards.
  • Institute a heat-alert plan outlining procedures to follow when heat waves are forecast.
  • Train workers on heat stress risks and preventive measures.
  • Maintain and report records relating to this standard.
  • Institute whistleblower protection programs to ensure that employees who witness violations of the heat stress safety standard are free to speak up.


Heat Predictions for Summer

The National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) can help decision makers prepare for extreme heat events days, months, and years in the future.

Risk Factors for Heat Illness

Many outdoor workers are in good physical health, but several factors can increase their risk of suffering from heat illness:

  • high temperature and humidity
  • direct sunlight
  • limited air movement (no breeze)
  • moderate to heavy exertion
  • heavy personal protective equipment
  • dehydration
  • some medications
  • other sources of heat (furnaces, ovens, exhaust)

In some cases, heat-related illness can occur in temperatures as low as the 70°F.

construction_worker_safetyImage Source: Shutterstock

Types of Heat Illness

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identifies the following five main types of heat illness:

1. Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is considered the most serious heat-related illness, occurring when the body can no longer regulate its temperature. The body temperature quickly rises and the ability cool off by sweating often fails. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability in the absence of emergency treatment.

  • Symptoms: Hot, dry skin; hallucinations; chills; throbbing headache; high body temperature; confusion/dizziness; slurred speech.
  • First Aid: Call 911 and notify supervisor; move affected worker to shaded area; take steps to cool the individual (spraying with water, fanning).

2. Heat Exhaustion: As a response to excessive loss of water and salt, the body may experience heat exhaustion. Those who are elderly or have high blood pressure are particularly vulnerable.

  • Symptoms: Heavy sweating; extreme weakness; dizziness/confusion; nausea; clammy skin; pale complexion; muscle cramps; slightly elevated body temperature; fast, shallow breathing.
  • First Aid: Have worker rest in a cool or shaded area; give worker plenty of water and have them take a cool bath, if possible.

3. Heat Syncope

Heat syncope is an episode of dizziness or fainting that can occur with prolonged standing or from suddenly standing from a sitting position. This can occur as a result of dehydration or a lack of acclimatization.

  • Symptoms: Light-headedness; dizziness; fainting.
  • First Aid: Have affected worker sit in a cool place once they feel symptoms, in addition to slowly drinking water or a sports beverage.

4. Heat Cramps

Heat cramps typically are a result of low salt levels in muscles as a result of excessive sweating. They also may be a symptom of heat exhaustion.

  • Symptoms: Muscle pain or spasms, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs.
  • First Aid: Stop activity and sit in a cool place; drink clear juice or a sports beverage; abstain from strenuous work for a few hours; seek medical attention if the worker has heart problems or the cramps don’t subside after one hour.

5. Heat Rash

Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating.

  • Symptoms: Appears as a red cluster of pimples or small blisters; likely to occur on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases.
  • First Aid: Keep worker in cooler, less humid environment; keep affected area(s) dry; use dusting powder, if available.

Heat Stress – Health and Safety Training

A heat stress training program should be in place for all who work in hot environments and their supervisors. Workers and supervisors should be trained about the prevention and first aid of heat-related illness before they begin work in a hot environment and before heat index levels go up.

Heat prevention training should be reinforced on hot days. Prevention of heat-related illnesses depends on early recognition of the signs and symptoms of impending heat-related illness and initiation of first aid and corrective procedures at the earliest possible moment.

OSHA Heat Illness Prevention Training Guide

  • A guide for employers to carry out heat safety training, with lesson plans (tailgate or toolbox talks).
  • Available in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF)



Many outdoor workers get uncomfortably hot during summer. Employers are responsible for providing a safe workplace – free from unsafe exposure to heat that can result in injuries, disease, reduced productivity, and death.

Heat Safety Resources for Worker and Employers

Supervisors: Preventing heat-related illness in your workers requires a commitment to monitoring daily temperatures, continual awareness of workers’ level of effort, and heat-illness prevention training.

Workers: Learn to recognize signs that you or your coworkers need to cool down. Be ready to seek help if you or your coworkers are disoriented, confused, or slurring speech.