Construction Companies Must Take Proper Precautions to Protect Workers from Heat Hazards
28 April 2023
With summer approaching and temperatures beginning to rise, construction companies must take every reasonable precaution to protect their workers from potential hazards, including heat-related illnesses. The Occupation Safety and Health Review Commission’s recent decisions in Secretary of Labor v. United States Postal Service, show the importance of providing adequate heat safety training to employees.
In the summer of 2016 two letter carriers in Des Moines, Iowa were hospitalized due to “excessive heat” hazard. The first incident occurred on June 9, 2016, in which the first carrier began texting her supervisor on how she was not feeling well and she was trying to finish her run. The supervisor encouraged her to do as best as she could and offered to provide ice but was unable because she became preoccupied with work, as well. The temperature surpassed 90 degrees Fahrenheit during this period. As the letter carrier felt too ill to continue working, she began to drive back to the station when she vomited out the window of her vehicle. Upon the carrier’s arrival to the station three other letter carriers described her appearance as “extremely red”, “dazed”, and “shaking”. The supervisor acknowledged that the carrier looked “flushed” and noted her collar was wet with sweat and instructed her to sit down and proceeded to call the station manager. The station manager instructed the carrier to finish her route. The letter carrier refused and proceeded to “storm out” and talk to her union representative, and then proceeded to visit an urgent care facility.
The second incident occurred on July 21, 2016, as the second letter carrier, classified as a City Carrier Assistant (a “CCA”), a non-career employee, was delivering mail on-foot, she began to experience a headache, nausea, and memory loss. A supervisor came to the carrier’s truck and the carrier informed the supervisor of her symptoms. The supervisor provided the carrier with three water bottles and left, but as the carrier continued her route, her symptoms began to worsen. Eventually the carrier called her son who called 911 and the carrier was subsequently transported to the hospital.
As a result of these incidents and other related incidents, OSHA issued a Citation alleging repeat violations of the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in which the Postal Service exposed its employees “to recognized hazards related to working outside during periods of high heat levels while delivering the … mail.”
The supervisor from the first incident testified that she had never been trained by the Postal Service on heat-related illnesses prior to this incident, apart from sometimes receiving emails with heat safety information and seeing a poster on heat safety in the breakroom. On the second incident, although, The Postal Service completed an accident report claiming that this carrier had failed to “comply with the rules”, the second letter carrier, a non-career employee, testified that no one at the Postal Service told her what rules she had failed to comply with and during the course of OSHA proceeding her testimony was deemed more credible than that of her supervisor’s.
The Commission found that this evidence had shown the training was deficient and that adequately training supervisors on heat safety would have materially reduced the risks posed by excessive heat. Moreover, safety talks were held when employees such as CCAs were not present. Adequate training requires attendance of all supervisors of safety talks, including ones addressing heat stress safety when all supervisors and employees, including CCAs, are present. Safety talks should not be conducted before certain employees are required to report to work.
The dangers of heat illness had been further discussed in the ALJ’s decision in this matter. The most serious illness caused by heat stress is heatstroke, which causes a dysfunction of the brain. Symptoms include slurred speech, disorientation, confusion, unconsciousness, or coma, and death. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and profuse sweating but does not result in an elevated body temperature or brain dysfunction. It is important that employers and employees recognize these symptoms to prevent “excessive” heat hazards. Moreover, it is vital to implement a heat acclimatation program for employees who are returning to work due to personal or health reasons. In A.H. Sturgill Roofing Inc., the Commission vacated citations that had been issued following an incident where employee who collapsed at a worksite and subsequently died from complications of heat stroke after working on a roofing project. The deceased employee had various pre-existing medical conditions. The employee’s assignment was to stand near the edge of the roof where other employees brought him a cart full of cut-up pieces of roofing. The assignment was intentionally made by the foreman because it was the employee’s first day on the project. All employees were encouraged to utilize the immediate access to ice, water, rest, and shade, without fear of reprisal.
Construction companies should have in place a proper heat illness prevention program that is communicated with all their employees, permanent and temporary, and that ensures adequate safeguards such proper supervision, acclimatizing workers, providing water, and managing work and rest cycles.