The summer of 2019 was one of the hottest and driest on record in parts of the U.S., exposing millions of workers to sweltering heat for extended periods of time.
Early in August, a mail carrier reportedly cooked a steak on the dashboard of a postal truck to highlight the extreme temperatures they have to endure, and there are reports of UPS workers fainting on the job and ending up in the emergency room.
There are newly introduced legislative pushes calling for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create nationwide heat-related workplace standards that have been absent for decades.
As climate change alters seasonal weather patterns and awareness spreads about the dangers associated with working outdoors during the summer season, workers may be wondering what rights they have if (or when) their higher-ups send them into the field during warmer-than-normal temperatures, with one of the most pressing questions being: Can your boss actually force you to work through extreme heat?
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Experts say the answer is “no,” but the laws aren’t so clear-cut.
“I’d argue that your employer can never force you to work,” said Steve Hawkins, deputy commissioner of employee safety and security for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Work for Development. He’s also responsible for the oversight of OSHA in Tennessee.
Ultimately, it’s up to you, the employee, to take care of yourself and exercise caution during scorching weather activity. If your boss seems unaware of the unsafe temperatures outdoors, “the employee absolutely has the right to ask, ‘What are we going to do to protect us from the heat today?’ ” Hawkins said.
What are the laws?
There’s no legal maximum or minimum indoor or outdoor temperature for the workplace, and OSHA hasn’t laid out specific steps employers must take to ensure worker protection from heat stress.
Still, the organization does have a “General Duty Clause” that requires workplaces to offer environments that are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”
OSHA has also created recommended standards for protecting employees from heat stress, such as maintaining hydration (water and sports drinks) and providing rest breaks.
Three states have adopted standards relating to heat exposure, so workers in California, Minnesota and Washington may be better protected in cases where heat-related hazards are present.
What should I do if my boss doesn’t listen?
“If an employee is being asked to work under conditions where general care isn’t provided, where there’s no water provided, they would want to call OSHA and file a complaint, and we will come and investigate,” Hawkins said. “We would issue a citation.”
OSHA gets “frequent” complaints about lack of water when it’s too hot outside, and the agency “responds quickly,” Hawkins said.
You don’t have to worry about being fired for filing a complaint. Workers in all 50 states are protected by OSHA’s whistleblower statute, which prohibits retaliation against employees who complain about unsafe or unhealthful conditions
What can I do to protect myself from the heat?
Aside from taking frequent rest and shade breaks if you’re working outside, you should also bring your own water to a job site in case your employer doesn’t provide any, Hawkins said.
Outdoor workers should also try to keep their skin covered.
“Light-colored clothing and some type of head covering with a wide brim that covers your face and your neck … will absolutely make a difference,” Hawkins said. Workers should also be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, which include muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, nausea and dizziness, according to the CDC.
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