Employers Should Stay Aware of Heat-Related Risks for Employees

New Jersey and New York both experienced dangerous heat waves this summer, and the temperatures seem to keep rising. With hotter temperatures lasting longer into the fall months, a greater focus has been on keeping workers who are exposed to the heat safe at work.

Currently, only three states have heat-related labor regulations – California, Washington, and Minnesota. There are no specific heat-related guidelines at the federal level, as there is only general guidance that employers must provide working conditions that are safe. For this reason, many employers across the United States fail to take appropriate measures to keep employees safe or allow employees the necessary rest from the heat to prevent injuries. 

Proposed Federal Legislation

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1992 and 2016, 783 people died on the job due to heat-related illnesses, and more than 69,000 suffered serious heat-related injuries. Last year, 90 individuals and 130 advocacy organizations sent a petition to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) seeking regulations to minimize heat stress and ensure safety for workers in hot conditions. As of yet, OSHA has not made any moves to enact such regulations.

On July 10, 2019, U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) proposed H.R. 3668, also called the “Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2019.” The legislation is named after a 53-year-old man who passed away in California after working in 105-degree temperatures for ten straight hours. After his death and the death of other farmworkers that same year, Rep. Chu – then a member of the California State Assembly – helped pass the heat-related labor protections that are on the books in California. 

Still, progress on the matter did not continue nationwide – or even in the large majority of states. For this reason, Rep. Chu is co-sponsoring the federal legislative proposal in hopes that California’s “gold standard” of heat protections will expand nationwide. 

The proposed legislation seeks OSHA to enforce regulations regarding the following:

  • Worker hydration
  • Scheduled and paid rest breaks from the heat 
  • Providing shaded or other climate-controlled places for the rest breaks
  • Plans for new workers to acclimatize to hot conditions
  • Monitoring a worker’s exposure to heat 
  • Preventing exposure beyond safe limits
  • Training for employees and supervisors regarding heat risks
  • Notification of heat-related hazards to workers
  • An emergency medical response plan for heat-related illnesses
  • Heat-related surveillance
  • Compensation for workers for heat-related rest breaks
  • Prohibited discrimination or retaliation against workers for heat-related requests

Advocates for the legislation state it is necessary to continue outside work during the warmer months, especially with constantly rising temperatures from climate change. The problem will only get worse unless it is addressed properly by the federal and state governments.

Industries with Risks of Heat Exposure

Many workers are at the regular risk of excessive heat exposure. A few years ago, researchers from Emory University conducted a study regarding how the heat affected farmworkers in Florida. They had the workers ingest tiny devices that measured and reported their core body temperature throughout the workday. The study concluded that four out of five workers had body temperatures higher than the healthy limit of 100.4 degrees at least once during the three-day monitoring period. Additionally, about 85 percent of workers claimed to experience heat-related symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, headaches, confusion, or fainting. 

Farmworkers are far from the only employees who are at risk of heat stroke or similar illnesses. Some other high-risk industries include the following:

  • Farm and agricultural work
  • Landscaping and groundskeeping
  • Construction work
  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Protective services
  • Installation, repairs, and maintenance
  • Lumber and tree removal
  • Production
  • Postal delivery
  • Airline support workers
  • Material moving
  • Transportation

This is far from an exhaustive list, and people working in many other types of jobs are at risk of heat-related illness on a daily basis. 

OSHA Tips for Employers

Despite the lack of formal regulations, OSHA started the Heat Illness Prevention campaign in 2011, which aims to educate employers about the dangers of working in high temperatures. Specifically, OSHA reminds employers that taking precautions in hot conditions is part of their responsibility to provide a work environment free from known safety hazards. Some recommendations for employers include:

  • Always ensuring that workers have enough provided water, rest, and shade
  • Monitoring workers for any signs of heat-related illness
  • Allowing workers time to acclimatize to working in the heat, including taking more frequent breaks at first or increasing their outdoor workload gradually
  • Training workers on illness prevention
  • Having a plan for heat-related emergencies

As of this time, these are only recommendations, and none of the above requirements are specifically required by federal law. 

Signs of Heat-Related Illness

All employees should understand the symptoms of heat-related illnesses, and they should not hesitate to ask for a break if they experience any of these symptoms. Moreover, supervisors should also be able to recognize these signs and take action if an employee seems to be struggling.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some symptoms of heat exhaustion are as follows:

  • Sweating heavily
  • Skin that gets clammy or pale
  • Weak and fast pulse
  • Muscle cramping
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fainting

If someone exhibits the above symptoms, they should sip water, move to a cool, shaded place, loosen tight clothing, and rest.

In some situations, heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke, which can be life-threatening. Some signs of heat stroke include:

  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Faster yet strong pulse
  • Skin that gets red and hot
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • Losing consciousness
  • Body temperature over 103 degrees

If any of these symptoms are present, someone should call 911 and the worker should immediately be helped to a cool place. Cool water, ice, or cool cloths can be used to try to lower their body temperature, though the person should not drink anything until they are examined by medical professionals.

Even though the risks of heat-related illnesses persist for many workers in New Jersey and across the United States, prompt action on the part of an employer can help prevent death and serious injuries. Employers should always listen to a worker’s concerns about possible heat exhaustion or heat stroke and should never require someone to keep working despite showing symptoms.

While we wait to see whether Congress will pass the new heat-related OSHA regulations, it is up to employers to ensure that workplaces are safe and free from heat-related hazards. Employees should never be afraid to speak up if they are worried about illness on the job.

Contact a New Jersey Employment Attorney for Assistance Today

Traub Law, Employment Attorneys, help both employees and employers to ensure that everyone stays safe and healthy at work. As new laws come into play, we can advise employers of safety requirements and how to adapt policies to ensure they are in full compliance to avoid penalties or liability. We also represent employees who had their rights violated under labor and employment laws and suffered harm as a result. 

Employers Should Stay Aware of Heat-Related Risks for EmployeesIf you have any questions or concerns regarding workplace safety requirements or whether your rights have been violated at work, please contact us online or call (609) 951-2204 to reach our offices in Princeton or East Brunswick. 

Practice Tips for a Successful Workplace Investigation

Practice Tips for a Successful Workplace Investigation
Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler Rigetti’s story of sexual harassment and the company’s inadequate response to her multiple complaints, highlight how important it is for a company to have an effective action plan in dealing with these sensitive issues.

The following is some practice pointers on what a company should do (and not do) when it receives an employee complaint of discrimination/harassment or other misconduct by another employee:

  1. Understand the complaint

Before taking action, it’s important to understand what the employee is complaining about. The company must know who is involved, what is alleged to have happened, as well as when, where and, if possible, why it occurred. The company should try to understand what the complainant is seeking without making any promises or assurances regarding how it will resolve the complaint.

  1. Should the company investigate?

Investigations can involve a significant allocation of time and financial resources so before a company conducts an internal or private outside investigation into a complaint, it should consider whether it is appropriate for an investigation to be undertaken or whether there is a better option for resolving the complaint – such as mediation of an interpersonal disagreement between colleagues.

  1. Review policies and procedures

Many employers have policies and procedures enacted that provide guidance or structure about how a workplace complaint should be handled or an investigation conducted. Therefore, once a complaint is received, the company should review its policies and procedures to ensure it is in compliance.

  1. Appointing an investigator

 The decision of whether to appoint an investigator or not should be made on a case-by-case basis. Although, it is less expensive to designate an internal investigator, there are times when a company should hire an outside investigator. The outside investigator is perceived as more neutral and may have greater expertise in conducting investigations and drafting investigation reports. Many companies hire an experienced attorney to serve as an outside investigator since the attorney is skilled at interviewing witnesses, making credibility assessments and writing effective reports.

  1. Keep the lines of communication open

If the employer undertakes an investigation into the complaint, it should take care to keep the lines of communication open with all of the involved parties. By actively managing expectations, the company can minimize some of the stress that is often associated with an investigation.

  1. Weighing and Assessing the Evidence

 Assessing conflicting evidence provided by investigation participants is a daunting task for many investigators. In addition to interviewing witnesses, the interviewer should review emails, file notes and other relevant documents or recordings. To the extent there is conflicting testimony given by witnesses, the investigator should make a credibility assessment in weighing the evidence. Sometimes a finding cannot be made and the investigation should properly be labeled as “inconclusive.”

  1. Take action

Once an investigation is concluded, a company should ensure that it promptly communicates the finding of the investigation to the parties involved. Where the investigation findings are likely to result in disciplinary action for an employee, the company will need to ensure that the employee is afforded procedural fairness throughout the disciplinary process. Even when an investigation has been inconclusive, there are still steps that could be taken, such as trainings on appropriate workplace behavior.

  1. Reassess

After the investigation is concluded, the company should review its policies, procedures, practices and on-going employee trainings to see whether its overall process in handling these sensitive employee complaints can be improved upon and whether an outside professional can assist with this process.

Rina Traub, of Traub Law in Princeton & East Brunswick, NJ,  is an experienced counselor and advocate for New Jersey’s executives, professionals and business owners.
Ms. Traub also counsels businesses on employment matters, including legal compliance, handbooks, and employer/employee relations.  For Workplace Investigations, Contact her at (609) 951-2204.

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