Keeping Construction Workers Safe in the Face of Climate Change and Extreme Heat
It’s May 1st, which means it’s the beginning of construction safety week. It’s also the day those of us living in Wisconsin can begin to believe we won’t see snow again for at least a few months. And while we’re all looking forward to warmer days ahead, we also have to prepare for days that are too hot – and too many of those “too hot” days. Climate models indicate that Wisconsin is going to face many more days with highs above 90 degrees in the decades to come. And Wisconsin isn’t alone – higher highs and more days of extreme heat is something that Midwestern states are expected to face in the near future as a result of climate change.
Extreme heat can be damaging to communities and people’s health, as evidenced during the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave. The toll extreme heat takes on people required to work outside in such weather was tragically demonstrated in Qatar during the lead up to the Fifa World Cup 2022, with hundreds or possibly thousands of construction workers dying from heat-related illnesses. Heat-related illnesses can cause short-term problems and, if not caught in time, can cause long term organ problems and even death.
While the Upper Midwest will not face the extreme heat of Qatar anytime soon, construction workers and other individuals required to work outside during extreme heat can still face heat-related illnesses, especially once temperatures rise above 90 degrees. Extreme heat can also cause other safety issues for construction workers, as palms get sweaty, safety goggles fog up from humidity and perspiration, and skin burns from coming into contact with hot metal. In a cruel twist, the same PPE that is supposed to keep construction workers safe on the job site can also increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.
In light of the risks extreme heat poses to construction workers and others exposed to such high temperatures, OSHA has begun the process of implementing a new rule specifically addressing heat injury and illness prevention in outdoor and indoor work settings. While OSHA works on a nationwide rule, three states already have heat-related rules: California, Washington, and Minnesota. Minnesota’s standard actually only applies to indoor environments, while California and Washington both address outside conditions. Maryland and Nevada both have heat-related standards under development as well.
Even before a specific heat-related rule is implemented, however, employers need to ensure that they are protecting their employees from extreme heat-related issues under OSHA’s General Duty Clause. This broad catch-all clause requires employers to keep their workplace free of serious recognized hazards. Given the increase in extreme heat across the nation, as well as the documented risks of working in extreme heat, employers already need to be taking steps to protect their workers from heat-related hazards nationwide—not just in southern states that have a history of extreme heat. OSHA itself already provides specific guidance to industries in which heat may pose a risk to workers.
Most people look forward to summertime, but summers are getting hotter. And when you live in a state like Wisconsin, which has two seasons – winter and construction – that means construction workers are going to be exposed to more heat, which poses serious health risks. While there is no specific heat-related rule that protects construction workers right now in Wisconsin or most states, the OSHA general duty clause means that employers need to be actively involved in ensuring that they keep their construction workers safe by keeping them cool.
Stafford Rosenbaum LLP is a full-service law firm with two convenient office locations in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over 140 years of dedication to businesses, governments, nonprofits, and individuals has proven that effective client communication continues to be the heart of our practice.