Amid record heat predictions, how HR can focus on employee safety

As the unofficial start to summer got underway Memorial Day weekend, some parts of the United States saw record heat.

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After last year’s summer of intense—and, in many cases, life-threatening—summer heat,  employers nationwide may now be thinking about what HR can do to get ahead of the ongoing impacts of “extreme weather” on employees.

The record heat is one challenge; add in the ongoing threat of wildfires and predictions about a stronger-than-normal hurricane season and you have a triple threat that employers need to prepare for, along with other possible weather-related events.

Meeting employee expectations

Alertmedia, a threat intelligence and emergency communication provider, found in its 2023 State of Employee Safety Report that nearly half (49%) of workforces believe that the world is more dangerous today than it was a few years ago. Data shows that potentially catastrophic events, including severe weather such as record-breaking high temperatures, are increasing in frequency and intensity.

“Employees everywhere have experienced multiple crises over the past few years that have altered their view of the world and their perceptions of safety outside of the comfort of their homes,” says Christopher Kenessey, CEO at AlertMedia. Kenessey adds that these events impact how employees show up to work daily. With that, Alertmedia is seeing a growing number of workers who want their employers to implement a more integrated, hands-on approach to employee safety.

“That is regardless of whether they’re working in the office, from home, in the field or while traveling for business,” he notes.

What does OSHA say about the record heat?

It’s not just employee expectations employers need to take note of. According to Alana Genderson, a Washington D.C.-based partner at the Morgan Lewis law firm, and key member of the firm’s safety and health practice, persistent heat waves and other weather events bring corresponding legal obligations employers must consider.

For instance, Genderson, who regularly works with clients to implement safety and health compliance policies and strategic plans, says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is paying increasing attention to the impacts of extreme weather in the workplace. In fact, since April 2022, OSHA has had a national emphasis program on indoor and outdoor heat-related hazards, which targets industries whose workforces are expected to have the highest exposures to heat—and resulting illnesses and deaths.

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Alana Genderson, Morgan Lewis
Alana Genderson, Morgan Lewis

“Employers often wonder what ‘exactly’ OSHA expects when it comes to heat in the workplace,” Genderson says, adding that while OSHA does not have a standard that governs heat in the workplace, it enforces heat hazards under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act. The catch-all “general duty” clause broadly requires employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees.

But, she adds, because OSHA doesn’t have a specific, prescriptive federal regulation that covers heat stress, there is no one-size-fits-all requirement for employers.

“Federal OSHA does not, for example, have one single temperature where employers suddenly need to have a heat-stress program,” she says.

See also: When disaster hits, what is HR’s role in avoiding ‘confusion and chaos’?

Instead, Genderson explains, OSHA has periodically published recommendations for protecting employees from heat hazards. Among other things, the agency recommends training employees who may work in hot environments and having a plan for monitoring for signs of heat illness.

OSHA also recommends that employers account for employees’ individual health issues when setting job expectations, along with worker/worksite-specific factors like temperature, the frequency of breaks, shade and acclimatization (i.e., how long an employee has been exposed to heat in the workplace over time to adjust to those working conditions).

However, Genderson cautions, OSHA’s recommendations on heat safety may bump into EEOC guidance on prohibited medical inquiries under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With that challenge, employment counsel can help businesses figure out how to balance worker safety and health concerns with privacy limitations. Either way, she says, given predicted record highs this summer, all employers with employees who work in hot environments should take stock of their plans to address heat.

“Even though OSHA does not have a specific standard on heat, several state plans do,” Genderson says, noting California and Washington are among those with heat-specific rules that apply to employers, while a number of other states are considering such proposals. “Employers should be sure to know whether state or local heat hazard requirements apply.”


This updated story was originally published on July 27, 2023.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].