With the end of warmer weather across much of the U.S., the number of OSHA complaints involving heat exposure will decrease until next year. While OSHA continues to report that it is working on a comprehensive heat stress safety standard, a number of state programs have adopted or are in the process of adopting their own regulations governing employee exposure to hot conditions.
Throughout this summer, our clients received several OSHA complaints not from outdoor workers, but from employees who typically work in air-conditioned facilities. In these situations, the air conditioner experienced mechanical issues and employees filed OSHA complaints when they claimed that they were required to continue working while repairs were underway. The employees alleged that the unusually hot conditions raised the risk of health issues.
The companies in these situations did not have written heat stress plans because normally employees are not exposed to such risk. They had to determine on the fly how to respond to suddenly warm to hot conditions in their facilities. We counseled these employers to develop and communicate emergency measures to deal with the unanticipated conditions. The counseling was similar to the steps contained in a heat stress plan, including water breaks and rotation of workers to cooler areas of the facility. Employees with potential health conditions linked to heat exposure were excused from work or had their schedules shifted to cooler nighttime hours.
By communicating understanding of issues raised by faulty HVAC systems, employers can help avoid OSHA complaints by employees who believe that they are being forced to work in unhealthy conditions. In addition, frequent updates on the cause of the air conditioner problems, including updates on the progress of repairs can give employees a clearer idea of when the issues will be resolved. Proactive measures, even those that have to be quickly improvised, can help reduce the risk of employee heat stress and the resulting financial and regulatory issues.
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