Question:

I own a construction business, and we were recently inspected by Cal-OSHA. Does California law require me to provide my employees with protection from heat exposure?

Answer:

Yes. As mentioned in the Workplace Law article two weeks ago, all employers with outdoor places of employment must implement safety measures to prevent heat illnesses, including (1) providing employees with sufficient drinking water, (2) providing adequate shade when the temperature reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, (3) training employees on heat illness prevention, (4) training supervisors on how to identify and respond to heat-related illness, and (5) developing a written heat prevention plan.

In 2010, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) implemented more stringent heat illness prevention rules for five industries: agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas extraction, and transportation or delivery of agricultural products, construction material, or other heavy material. While the basic heat-illness rules discussed in the prior Workplace Law article are applicable to these five industries, these five industries must also implement special “high-heat” policies and procedures “to the extent practicable” when the temperature equals or exceeds 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

First, employers in the covered industries must ensure that effective communication by voice, observation, or electronic means is maintained so that employees at the work site can contact a supervisor when necessary. An electronic device, such as a cell phone or text messaging device, may be used for this purpose only if reception in the area is reliable.

Second, employers must also observe employees for “alertness and signs or symptoms of heat illness.” In instances where employees work in small groups without a supervisor present throughout the shift, the supervisor may designate an employee with sufficient experience and training to look for signs and symptoms of heat illness. Such a designated observer, however, must know what steps to take if heat illness occurs.

Third, employers must remind employees throughout the work shift to drink plenty of water.

Finally, employers must closely and directly supervise new employees for the first 14 days of the new employee’s employment, unless the employee indicates at the time of hire that he or she has been doing similar outdoor work for at least 10 of the past 30 days for 4 or more hours per day.

While these requirements must be implemented “to the extent practicable,” employers are strongly urged to follow them and include them in their written safety plan. Willful violations are punishable by fines of up to $70,000. It is also a misdemeanor for an employer to violate these standards if the violation has a substantial probability of resulting in death or serious physical harm to employees. In 2010, Cal-OSHA issued 1158 citations totaling nearly $2 million in fines and shut down 16 job sites due to violations of high-heat safety standards.

Employers must be proactive and should not wait until temperatures increase to develop high-heat illness prevention standards. If an employer does not have any policies in place, the employer should immediately adopt compliant policies. If necessary, employers who are not in compliance with the high heat requirements should avoid placing employees in high-heat situations until such policies are implemented.

For additional information, please visit Cal-OSHA’s website,
http://www.dir.ca.gov/DOSH/HeatIllnessInfo.html.
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