Farmworkers are 20 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than other workers. For the first time, the federal government has given OSHA enforcement authority to try and address this disparity. This means that on days with heat advisories, OSHA can inspect farms for heat-related hazards, where the agency has the authority to conduct enforcement actions.
The new National Emphasis Program shifted OSHA’s response to heat risks on farms to a proactive one. They will provide consultation services to help farms develop their heat illness prevention plans to educate farms but will also instigate unannounced heat-related inspections on days the National Weather Service announces a heat warning or advisory for a certain area
Even if OSHA inspectors are on-site for other safety concerns on ‘heat priority days,’ they now have the authority to inquire about heat-related preparedness. A ‘heat priority day’ is any day when the heat index is 80 degrees or above.
What would an OSHA inspector be looking for in a farm’s heat related preparedness?
- A clear plan to monitor ambient temperatures at the worksite,
- Evidence of supervisor monitoring exertion and limiting heat exposure when necessary,
- Evidence of training employees on recognizing the symptoms of heat-related illness,
- A response plan if anyone is displaying symptoms,
- Plans to allow workers to acclimatize to higher temperatures by gradually increasing workloads and allowing more frequent breaks,
- Ensuring that employees have access to water, and
- Records for any heat-related incidents at the farm, including illnesses, trips to the emergency room, and hospitalizations.
- Any regulatory inspection on your farm includes a review of records, observation and interviews with farm owners and employees.
OSHA’s rules require that they use neutral, objective criteria to choose which farms to inspect. Furthermore, no inspection can be conducted on a farm that currently and at all times during the previous 12 months had 10 or fewer employees, unless that farm also had a temporary labor camp.
Establishing this National Emphasis Program (NEP) is coupled with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The NEP will expire in three years, at which point it is expected that a federal heat standard will have been developed to replace the NEP.
“As we continue to see temperatures rise and records broken, our changing climate affects millions of America’s workers who are exposed to tough and potentially dangerous heat,” said U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “We know a disproportionate number of people of color perform this critical work and they, like all workers, deserve protections. We must act now to address the impacts of extreme heat and to prevent workers from suffering the agony of heat illness or death.”
Here is a resource for preparing for OSHA inspections, though it is not specific to heat-related issues.
Also note that researchers have recently found that humans have lower heat tolerances than once thought. Previously it was accepted that 95 degrees at 100% humidity was the upper limit for people; in these conditions sweat will no longer evaporate from one’s skin and therefore body temperature cannot be regulated. The upper limit has been lowered to 87 degrees F at 100% humidity according to this study. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, we will be getting more and more of these upper limit days. Heat-related safety issues are going to be an important issue on farms of all sizes over the next decade, whether your farm is subject to OSHA inspections or not.