COVID-19 Policy Tracker
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Key Takeaways:

  • After record- breaking heat waves were experienced in the United States and around the world in the summer of 2021, policymakers at the state and federal level are taking regulatory action to address excess temperatures at workplaces.
  • The record heat wave endured by the Pacific Northwest this past summer led Oregon and Washington state to adopt emergency regulations.
  • These states are two of only four, including California and Minnesota, that currently have regulations in place indicating how employers must attempt to prevent heat-related illness in employees, though this is a growing area of interest across state legislatures.
  • OSHA announced that it will initiate a new enforcement regime that focuses on heat-related hazards; develop a program on heat inspections; and begin rulemaking on a workplace heat standard.

After record-breaking heat waves were experienced in the United States and around the world in the summer of 2021, policymakers at the state and federal level are taking regulatory action to address excess temperatures at workplaces. 

The record heat wave endured by the Pacific Northwest this past summer led Oregon and Washington state to adopt emergency regulations, effective until January 4, 2022 and November 5, 2021 respectively, meant to prevent heat-related illnesses in the workplace. The Oregon rule mandates that when the heat index temperature in the work area is equal to or exceeds 80° F, employers must provide access to shade and drinking water for workers. In Washington, the temperature threshold is 100° F, and the rule specifies that employers must ensure a paid cool-down rest period of at least ten minutes every two hours. 

These states are two of only four, including California and Minnesota, that currently have regulations in place indicating how employers must attempt to prevent heat-related illness in employees, though this is a growing area of interest across state legislatures. Over the past five years, 18 pieces of legislation have been introduced across the states, but only two states enacted laws: California, which led to the regulations above, and Maryland. In 2020, Maryland enacted legislation (MD HB 722) instructing the Commissioner of Labor and Industry to adopt regulations addressing heat-related illness in workers. Those regulations have yet to be drafted. Virginia and Nevada are currently in the process of finalizing regulations, independent of legislative action. 

On the federal level, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on September 20, 2021, that it will initiate a new enforcement regime that focuses on heat-related hazards; develop a program on heat inspections; and begin rulemaking on a workplace heat standard. 

As OSHA attempts to implement a federal standard, the agency faces a significant hurdle enforcing these new regulations: lack of inspectors. Though the agency said it would expand enforcement on high-heat days, it’s unclear how that will be managed with the current number of inspectors. OSHA has fewer than 2,000 inspectors across the country. Those inspectors currently conduct more than 65,000 inspections per year. OSHA’s announcement made no mention of the additional number of inspectors required to handle the increased number of inspections on high-heat days.  

Heat-related illness in the workplace has been cited in the deaths of 43 workers and the injury of over 2,400 others in 2019. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, extreme heat waves will be more commonplace and occur about once every four years, indicating that this will be a growing area of workplace regulation into the future.