Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic offers a layman’s definition: “A heat dome is effectively what it sounds like—an area of high pressure that parks over a region like a lid on a pot, trapping heat.” In a situation that the Washington Post labeled as an “infestation,” five powerful heat domes simultaneously impacted the northern hemisphere and multiple all-time records were shattered. The article notes, “Heat domes like this are normal at this time of year, the hottest point of summer, but it’s unusual to have this many this intense. Every one of these heat domes is generating exceptional weather.”
The scramble to address the threat to worker health and safety has led, so far, to a patchwork regulatory response.
“The issue has become such a concern that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put a new heat illness rule on a list of agenda items for the Biden administration to consider, calling it a top priority. Right now, there is no specific federal policy that governs heat-related workplace safety, leaving states to set their own approach.”
Oregon and Washington announced emergency rules related to cool-down rest breaks, training, communication, and other measures. Minnesota’s standards involve the “wet-bulb globe temperature” (WGBT) index, which is a multi-factor tool that is derived from temperature, airspeed, humidity, and sunlight radiation. (This index was used to guide rescheduling decisions for events at both the Olympic trials in Oregon and the Tokyo Olympics.)
Why It Matters
With reports that “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working on a new heat standard to target indoor workers without climate-controlled environments, including those who toil in manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers that fall under that definition” and the recent formation of the National Heat Safety Coalition, consensus is building that more focus is required.
A recent study by R. Jisung Park, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles and associate director of economic research at the Luskin Center for Innovation, underscores how heat effects expand to many other layers of employee safety:
“...higher temperatures were also linked to more injuries overall, including falls from scaffolding, wounds from machinery, and collisions with industrial vehicles. Compared to days with outdoor temperatures in the 60s, days with temperatures between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit caused a 5 to 7 percent increase in same-day injury risk, while days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit led to a 10 to 15 percent increase.”
This means that heat domes not only create potential heat-related incidents, but can also drive a significant rise in other safety incidents, particularly at extreme temperatures.
Sean Salvas, Senior Market Strategy Lead for Origami Risk’s EHS solution, began his safety career working on the application of WGBT Index research in a large-scale distribution center environment and offered several thoughts on how organizations should prepare for the challenges of increasing heat domes:
- Focus on work/rest cycles – As the temp rises, the cycles need to shorten.
- Communication is key – Consistent policies and trainings need to be pushed out, and feedback/updates need to be collected from the field.
- Centralize everything – Everyone needs to work off a single playbook; that also means a single source of truth for the data.
Origami client Maricopa County, AZ, the fourth most populous county in the US, has more experience than most in trying to keep over 13,000 employees safe during extreme heat events. Timothy Little, Risk Control and Loss Prevention Manager at Maricopa County, shared some insights:
- Don’t just react... plan for excessive heat – Expect managers to monitor forecasts, adjust hours to avoid the most dangerous times, and reduce productivity expectations accordingly.
- Control the work environment – Increase break frequency, reduce workload and intensity, and limit the need for PPE when possible.
- Leverage existing regulatory guidance – CA, OR, MN, and WA are leaders in this area, as are groups like NIOSH and the military.
It is clear that the challenges associated with heat domes will likely increase in frequency, severity, and the areas impacted. This will force more organizations to manage direct and indirect safety hazards in a more systematic way. With a dynamic regulatory environment, any technology solution employed needs to be flexible and easily reconfigurable as challenges evolve. Tim Little offered a parting thought for any organization trying to get their arms around this: “If you do the best job possible at protecting your employees, regulatory compliance is just writing down what you are doing.”