Occupational Heat Stress Illness Gets Hearing on Capitol Hill

Michelle Hopkins

Proposed legislation directing the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to create a new standard on heat-related illness drew mixed views from business and labor leaders at a House committee hearing on July 11. But the compelling need for action was clear in the testimony of an occupational health expert: well-designed heat-related illness prevention programs may lead to significantly less heat-related illness and lower workers’ compensation costs.

Concentra Leader Speaks on Heat Illness Prevention

Dr. Ronda McCarthy, national medical director of surveillance for Concentra and a board-certified physician in occupational medicine, described a heat stress awareness program she implemented for a central Texas municipality. 

After observing an increase in occupational accidents, illnesses, and injuries during the summer months, she convinced the city to implement a heat-stress awareness and prevention program for at-risk workers in street maintenance, traffic, parks and recreation, solid waste management, and utilities.

The program relied heavily on OSHA’s technical manual on heat stress and recommendations from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments). The recommendations included simple, effective, elements:

  • Hydration
  • Access to shade and rest
  • Training for supervisors and employees on the signs and symptoms of heat stress and heat-related illness
  • First aid and emergency response procedures
  • A three-to-four-day protocol for heat acclimatization

More than 600 employees covered by the program continued to work in hot temperatures that did not abate from year to year. Over the program’s first seven years, heat-related illnesses and fatalities dropped steadily. Ultimately, no heat-related fatalities were recorded in the last two years. Associated workers’ compensation costs declined by 50 percent per heat-related illness case. There were no associated workers’ compensation costs in the last two years of the program.

“If a new heat-related illness prevention standard becomes law, many workers’ lives will be saved,” Dr. McCarthy said. In the central Texas program, the risk of an employee succumbing to a heat-related illness decreased 66 percent in the 2012-2014 period and 91 percent in 2015-2017. Employers increased productivity and also reduced accidents and injury/illness costs, she explained.

Heat Protection Proposal

Dr. McCarthy and other witnesses provided industry input on H.R. 3668, the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). The legislation was introduced the day before the hearing held by the House Committee on Education and Labor. 

H.R. 3668 would direct OSHA to propose a heat protection standard for indoor and outdoor work sites and then to issue a final rule in 18 months. The measure would require the federal standard to be at least as strict as the strictest state standard; thus, it would effectively parallel California’s standard, the strictest of only three state heat standards.

Further, H.R. 3668:

  • Requires employers to maintain written heat illness prevention programs
  • Explains that programs would include provisions for monitoring heat conditions, providing protective clothing, water, shade, and paid rest breaks
  • Allows workers to acclimatize to heat
  • Requires employers to have an emergency response plan

The major point of contention among some of the business and labor witnesses was the level of detail in the bill’s requirements of employers.

Existing law and OSHA’s current heat illness prevention campaign already address heat stress and provide the information needed,” said Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services for the Associated General Contractors of America, which represents 26,000 construction businesses nationwide.

“Heat-related illness prevention is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. Legislation that imposes “an arbitrary deadline or overly proscriptive requirements would not be helpful. OSHA’s rulemaking process is deliberate. Legislation would undermine that.”

Representing labor organizations, Javier Rodriguez of Corona, California, an organizer for Warehouse Worker Resource Center, and Arturo Rodriguez, retired president of the United Farmworkers Union and the United Farmworkers Foundation, poignantly described workers who died from heat, some on their first day at work.

California Farm Bureau Federation and COO Bryan Little urged lawmakers and regulators to learn from California’s experience in developing a heat standard.

It should be simple, limited in scope with general requirements. Simplicity, training, and collaboration are important aspects of the California law and should be followed on the federal level, too,” he said.

The full hearing

Dr. Ronda McCarthy’s testimony begins at around 56:11.