A coalition of more than 130 groups and nearly 90 individuals is calling on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue the first nationwide U.S. standard to protect workers in construction and all other industries against excessive heat on job sites.

In a petition sent to OSHA on July 17, the groups, led by advocacy organization Public Citizen, recommend that the proposed heat standard include mandatory rest breaks away from the heat, including a complete halt at certain extreme heat levels.

The report also wants OSHA to require employers to provide protective equipment such as water- or air-cooled garments. It calls for mandatory access to water and electrolytes to maintain hydration and implement plans to get workers gradually acclimated to high temperatures over a period of at least seven days.

The groups say that construction and agriculture have the “highest risk of heat stress injuries and deaths” among U.S. industries.

An OSHA spokesperson says, “We have received the petition and it’s under review.”

The petitioners note that the U.S. military and only three states—California, Minnesota and Washington—have heat protections for workers.

Contractors' comment

Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, says, “Whether a one-size-fits-all approach is the right solution, we don’t know.” He notes that AGC is waiting for feedback from its members in California about how that state’s heat standard has affected their operations.

Turmail adds, “But certainly we agree that any focus on educating workers and educating all firms about the need to protect workers from heat exposure is welcome.”

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the petitioners say that from 1992 through 2016, excessive heat stress caused the deaths of 783 workers. Another 69,374 suffered serious heat-related injuries or illnesses.

In a separate report, Public Citizen said that during the week of July 1 to 7, an average of 1.8 million construction workers per day faced extreme heat.

Construction unions' view

The petitioners include some representation from construction labor groups, including the teamsters’ union and the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America.

North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) didn’t sign on to the petition, but Chris Trahan Cain, NABTU director of safety and health, said via email, “We strongly support employers providing a safe workplace where recognized hazards are controlled.” She added, “That goes for heat, too.”

Cain called the petition “a thoughtful, comprehensive and scientifically sound document that very effectively argues for OSHA to act on this hazard.”                                         

She said the building trades advocate such steps as cooling schedules and availability of water on job sites to reduce construction worker deaths or illnesses from heat exposure.

At AGC, Turmail says, "Many of our members have been leading the charge on heat awareness." He notes that most AGC chapters have heat-awareness programs ata the start of summer to keep firms up to date on latest measures to protect against severe heat.

Some large firms, he adds, use "wearable smart technology" to monitor such indicators as workers' heart rates.

The Public Citizen report says that climate change will worsen the heat situation. It says that for a group of 133 U.S. cities, the number of construction worker-days of extreme heat will rise to 95.1 million in 2050, from from 35.3 million in 2000.