The Heat Is On: Protecting Workers From Heat-Related Illness in a Warming Climate

Author: Taylor Lewellyn, Brightmine Legal Editor

Date: April 9, 2024

Is it getting hot in here?

As record-breaking temperatures are steadily becoming the norm nationwide, the answer to that question is a resounding "yes," and both employers and legislatures have faced urgent calls to protect employees from the increased risk of heat-related illness, particularly in the sweltering summer months. With average global temperatures continuing to trend upward, state officials and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are working to develop and implement a patchwork of standards and enforcement initiatives to combat the intensifying indoor and outdoor heat hazards.

As legislation proliferates and the dangers to the workforce mount, employers have a unique position and obligation to ensure they keep their employees safe and healthy in the extreme heat.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the summer of 2023 was the country's hottest on record, and globally, the three-month period was the second warmest ever recorded. Unfortunately, the National Weather Service Prediction Center expects the trend to continue in 2024 due the impacts of the weather phenomenon known as La Niña. Coupled with poor air quality levels due to wildfire smoke and other pollutants, the rising temperatures and higher heat indexes are creating acute hazards for both outdoor and indoor workers and present novel challenges for governments and employers to create effective safeguards.

What Is Heat-Related Illness?

What are the risks and adverse effects of increased temperatures on employees?

Under normal circumstances, the human body relies on its ability to get rid of excess heat, also known as heat dissipation, to maintain a healthy internal body temperature when working in a warm environment. This process happens naturally through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. Workers cool down more rapidly if environmental heat and physical activity are reduced. If heat dissipation does not happen quickly enough due to extreme environmental temperatures or overexertion, the internal body temperature keeps rising and a worker may experience heat-related illness.

Heat-related illnesses can range from relatively mild conditions such as heat cramps to more serious illnesses such as heat exhaustion. Symptoms can include thirst, irritability, rash, heavy sweating, very high body temperature, rapid heart rate, cramping, seizures, unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation or slurred speech. The most severe form of heat-related illness is heat stroke, which can lead to death. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that at least 436 workers died from heat exposure from 2011 through 2021.

Both employers and employees should become familiar with the symptoms of heat-related illness to ensure proper recognition and rapid treatment of any such illnesses in the workplace. The following table summarizes the most common symptoms for various heat-related illnesses suffered by indoor and outdoor workers.

Fortunately, despite the spike in heat hazards around the country, heat-related illness is entirely preventable.

(Heat) Waves of Legislation

To encourage and compel employers to take preventive steps to protect their workers, numerous states have passed or are developing indoor and/or outdoor heat illness prevention standards:

In addition to developments at the state level, OSHA published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking related to a federal "Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings" standard in 2021. While that rulemaking process trundles on, the agency has also implemented a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to protect employees from heat-related hazards and resulting injuries and illnesses in outdoor and indoor workplaces.

Employer Readiness

While employers wait for OSHA to issue a permanent or emergency temporary standard or for the jurisdictions in which they operate to act to prevent heat-related illness amid a warming climate, there are several actions that can protect workers in the interim.

In addition to staying apprised of the latest heat hazard-related legislation, at a minimum take the following steps to safeguard employees' health and safety against extreme heat:

  • Provide adequate water, rest breaks and shade or cool rest areas;
  • Encourage employees to consume sufficient fluids, both on and off the job;
  • Use air conditioning and changes to workloads and schedules when possible;
  • Implement the acclimatization process to help workers gradually increase their exposure to hot working conditions;
  • Train employees to recognize and prevent heat-related illness and its symptoms and how to respond if they or a fellow employee appears to be suffering from a heat-related illness; and
  • Implement a "buddy" system that pairs workers together and makes it easier for co-workers to identify signs of heat illness.

Additionally, some organizations may wish to implement remote work-readiness to prepare for possible extreme weather emergencies. According to the Harvard Business Review, over the past 12 years, US firms with a remote-ready workforce maintained an edge when impacted by disasters such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires - yielding around $70 million more in the quarterly revenue on average, compared to their less-prepared counterparts during the quarter of the crises.

By being proactive in protecting and prioritizing their most valuable asset - their employees - and preventing heat-related injuries and illnesses on the job, organizations can not only avoid decreased performance and lost productivity but also bolster their bottom line and foster a more engaged, loyal, and effective workforce.