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OSHA Turning Up Temperature on Heat Injury Illness, Prevention

Article-OSHA Turning Up Temperature on Heat Injury Illness, Prevention

Sun shining in the sky
The new federal rule would be the first of its kind and will likely be far reaching.

Though most roofers are settling in for the cold winter months, summer is already heating up on the regulatory front thanks to a new heat injury and illness prevention rule OSHA is devising. Although the rule may take time to develop, it could be as little as six months away, and industry leaders say now is the time to start preparing.

“There is not much that can be done to stop it so the industry will be facing it for the heat season,” warned John Kenney, COO of Cotney Attorneys and Consultants. However, Tom Shanahan, NRCA’s VP of enterprise risk management said the actual rule may be farther off. “We’re quite a way away from anything happening, and I would hope OSHA is not going to be draconian with this rule,” he said.

On Oct. 27, OSHA published advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) for heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings in the federal registry. Such a rule would “clearly set forth employer obligations and the measures necessary to more effectively protect employees from hazardous heat,” the notice said. The notice continued, “In addition, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events, as well as increasing daily average daytime and nighttime temperatures.”

The standard would be the first federal OSHA rule for heat injury and illness protection. However, four states—Oregon, Washington, California and Minnesota—currently have their own state-issued OSHA heat rules, according to OSHA. Experts said those states provide clues to what the federal rule will look like when it’s completed.

Of particular concern is the standard around what temperature the OSHA regulation kicks in for roofers, according to experts. Currently, the four states with heat rules vary from 100° to 80° temperature. But those temperatures depend on whether the rule is based on ambient temperature or heat index temperature. As the rule works its way through the process, it may be important for roofers to know the difference.

“Ambient temperature refers to the current air temperature—the overall temperature of the outdoor air that surrounds us. In other words, ambient air temperature is the same thing as "ordinary" air temperature. When indoors, ambient temperature is sometimes called room temperature,” according to

“The ambient temperature doesn't take into account the relative humidity of the air or the impact of the wind on human perceptions of heat or cold. The amount of moisture (mugginess) or humidity in the air can make it harder for sweat to evaporate; this, in turn, will make you feel warmer. As a result, the heat index will increase even if the ambient air temperature will remain steady. This explains why dry heat is often less bothersome than moist heat,” the site further explained.

Given that the federal OSHA standard is for both indoor and outdoor environments, whether the rule uses ambient or heat index may depend on the environment. For outdoor settings, heat index may be more likely.

Either way, the low temperature standard is of concern, Kenney said. “Eighty degrees is a very low standard,” he said. “From a roofer’s perspective, 80° is a beautiful spring day.”

Kenney also said the rule may put an undue burden on employers because it doesn’t take into account what employees do when off the job site. For example, if employees consume lots of alcohol or energy drinks off work hours they may be dehydrated when they come to work, making them susceptible to heat injury or illness. “You could be doing all the right things, and you. Could still have a heat issue problem,” Kenney warned. He further worried that the rule would “open the door” for OSHA to do other worksite inspections.

But while the proposed rule does raise red flags that organizations such as NRCA will be watching, it appears roofers are already handling heat issues well, according to Tom Shanahan, VP enterprise risk management for NRCA. He said insurance claims data from an association partner shows heat illness and injury doesn’t show a dramatic claims frequency. “It isn’t as if this is something that rises to the level of insurers not insuring roofing contractors because of heat-related exposure issues,” Shanahan said.

He said that’s likely due to roofers already recognizing that they need to protect roofers against such issues through proper training and preparation. But with an OSHA rule in the wings, he added that now is the time for roofers to shore up their heat training and prep.

Both Shanahan and OSHA named four key areas that roofers need to focus on:

  1. Acclimatization: “Workers who are new to working in warm environments may not be acclimatized to heat and their bodies need time to gradually adapt to working in hot environments. Evaluations of workplace fatalities have shown that approximately 70% of deaths occur within the first few days of work, and upwards of 50% occur on the first day of work,” according to OSHA.
  2. Monitoring: “Monitoring can alert both employees and employers when workers have been exposed to hazardous heat and are experiencing heat strain and should seek water, rest, shade, cooling, or medical attention,” OSHA advised.
  3. Planning and responding: “Workers and employers need to be able to identify a heat-illness emergency, know how to respond to an emergency to protect the health of the affected worker, to have materials on-site to respond to an emergency, and know-how to contact emergency medical care when needed,” according to OSHA.
  4. Worker training and engagement: “Employees must know what protective measures are being utilized and be trained in their use so that those measures can be effectively implemented,” the agency warned.

But while OSHA and NRCA generally agree on how best to prevent heat injury and illness, the two don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on how to apply rules. That’s especially concerning that the rule will apply to all industries. That’s why NRCA and other organizations will be lobbying OSHA throughout the process—and why roofers need to be aware. 

“The concern is always that we have a standard that follows the uniqueness of the roofing industry’s exposure,” Shanahan said. “A job is not a job is not a job.”

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