It’s August, and the country is sweltering in heat. “The summer forecast … continues to call for above-average temperatures in a large part of the Lower 48,” the Weather Channel says.
In May, areas from the Northwest through the Midwest and Great Lakes saw temperatures far above average. High temperatures came on the heels of the warmest April on record in Seattle and Portland, Ore., according to the Weather Channel.
In June, the California Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA, issued an extreme heat advisory. “Employers must be vigilant,” said Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum. “Ensuring an adequate supply of water, providing a shaded area for rest and recognizing the signs of heat illness can save workers’ lives.”
Water, shade and rest. That’s how to get work done this August and September.
Heat Illness Prevention
Wall and ceiling contractors generally run very safe shops. Still, a recent National Safety Council survey found that 66 percent of respondents in the construction industry felt that safety was less of a priority than finishing tasks. And, it’s a good time to review company policies and procedures because regulators are watching.
Cal/OSHA has promised to inspect outdoor worksites, including construction sites. California’s heat regulation requires employers to have a written policy on heat illness prevention in place as well as related training programs. Employers must provide each worker with a quart of drinking water every hour, access to shade and at least five minutes for employees to take a cool-down rest. Is a worker nauseous, exhausted or mentally confused? California law requires summoning emergency medical services immediately.
Cal/OSHA’s heat illness prevention campaign is the first of its kind in the nation. The U.S. Department of Labor is stepping up its efforts, too. In June, DOL updated its OSHA Heat Safety Tool mobile app. The app is complementary for Android and Apple devices and is also available in Spanish. (To access the Spanish version on the iPhone, set the phone language setting to Spanish before downloading the app.) The OSHA Heat Safety Tool allows workers and supervisors to calculate the heat index for their job site. The app shows the risk level they face and suggests taking protective measures.
OSHA Penalties Rise
Another reason to review company safety policies and procedures lies with a new law. The DOL, OSHA in particular, is raising the dollar amounts of its penalties.
“Last year, Congress passed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015 to advance the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties and to strengthen their deterrent effect,” says Sharon Block, DOL principal deputy assistant secretary for policy in an agency blog post.
Penalties under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, for example, had not been raised since 1990, when a gallon of gas cost $1.20 and a first class stamp was $0.25. In fact, it hasn’t been easy to adjust OSH Act penalties. The old law had flaws, such as having a hard cap on increases and certain rounding rules that prevented penalties from matching inflation over time. Some penalties, including those enforced by OSHA, were exempt under the prior law—“frozen in time,” Block says.
The 2015 Inflation Adjustment Act comes to the rescue of workers, including H-2B temporary guest workers. It allows for straightforward number crunching so the federal government can adjust penalties each year. It also directs agencies to issue “catch up” penalty amounts this month. OSHA’s penalties, for example, increased by about 78 percent after Aug. 1, 2016. OSHA’s top penalty for “serious violations” rises from $7,000 to $12,471. Its top penalty for “willful or repeated violations” jumps from $70,000 to $124,709.
While these penalties are not related to heat illness prevention violations—and, I understand, OSHA has not yet set violation penalties for heat illness prevention violations—you can expect OSHA fines, in general, to be much higher than before.
Value Your People
Of course, penalties are not the main motivation to provide for worker safety. The value of our people should drive what we do. We can certainly say that responsible construction employers will at least have a more level playing field when they compete with firms that cut corners on worker safety. But this summer, it’s all about the heat. A worker who has access to cool water, shade and a little rest is going to do better work anyway.