According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the average manufacturer in the United States pays $19,564 per employee per year to comply with federal government regulations. Small manufacturers with fewer than 50 employees incur regulatory costs of $34,671 per employee per year. This burden on manufacturers is more than triple that faced by the average U.S. company, and it is about to get worse thanks to a new OSHA initiative to regulate indoor facilities exceeding an 80°F heat index.

On Oct. 27, 2021, OSHA released an advanced notice of public rulemaking (NPRM) “to protect indoor and outdoor workers from hazardous heat and is interested in obtaining additional information about the extent and nature of hazardous heat in the workplace and the nature and effectiveness of interventions and controls used to prevent heat-related injury and illness.”

If the agency finalizes the rule, OSHA will increase enforcement efforts on heat priority days when the heat index reaches or exceeds 80°F. OSHA is seeking public comment through Dec. 27, 2021. This rule will affect thousands of manufacturers that will face significant compliance costs.

In my 20 years lobbying in Washington, D.C. for manufacturing companies, I have enjoyed touring plants in all regions of the country making a wide range of products. When we take members of Congress through shops, they are often amazed at the technology used and the cleanliness of some facilities. We explain to policymakers the OSHA requirements and safety precautions taken to protect workers and improve productivity. The personal protective equipment and engineering controls, training and documentation all add up, but they may pale in comparison to the disruption OSHA’s coming heat rule may cause.

In its announcement, OSHA stated that workers across hundreds of industries are at risk for hazardous heat exposure and resulting health impacts and specifically mentioned manufacturing as a targeted industry. Federal data identified 789 heat-related hospitalizations and 54 heat-related fatalities since 2018 across nearly 275 unique industries documented by OSHA through workplace inspections and violations.

Regulating heat for outdoor and seasonal workers is not new for OSHA, but this particular emphasis on indoor heat will have a significant impact on manufacturers. According to OSHA, “61% of non-fatal heat-related illness cases occurred during or after work in an indoor work environment.” In announcing this action, OSHA stated that they have other existing standards that have not proven adequate in fully protecting workers.

Going further, OSHA stated that some actions that an employer may recommend a worker take when experiencing heat-related illness, such as hydration, are considered first aid and are therefore not recordable. By this interpretation, OSHA believes heat-related incidents are undercounted and further justifies their taking this action.

osha safety

While regulating heat may not be new, establishing an 80°F heat index as the threshold for action will affect thousands of manufacturing facilities across the country – from those melting aluminum at 1250°F to furnace manufacturers whose customers will now ask how that equipment will impact their heat measurements.

Make no mistake, an 80°F threshold with a heat index is easily, and regularly, achieved throughout the calendar year in many parts of the country. In visiting with a Missouri manufacturer in October with a number of furnaces in service, the owner confirmed that they exceeded the limit for this proposed regulation on the autumn day in question.

In the federal rulemaking process, you can issue a Request for Information, announce a Proposed Rulemaking, issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking or issue a Final Rule. Essentially, OSHA is put-ting employers on notice that it intends to move forward with a proposed and then final rule once it completes this initial outreach to the regulated community. Sources in Washington expect a proposed rule possibly as soon as spring 2022 that could take effect later that year or in early 2023 to allow businesses to make the equipment purchases necessary to meet the regulation’s requirements. These purchases for engineering control and PPE are not cheap, even if they are achievable and effective.

OSHA updated materials in 2021 to recognize both indoor and outdoor heat hazards and will now take a regional focus based on heat and climate change. Under this new proposal, OSHA area offices may initiate heat interventions or inspections based on “local knowledge of establishments, referrals from the local health department or from other Federal agencies with joint jurisdictions, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), media referrals or previous OSHA inspection history.”

OSHA says that health risks may be higher earlier in warmer seasons before people have had time to acclimatize and that workers will face an increased risk of heat-related illness due to heat exposure. Manufacturers should prepare to hear more about weather acclimatization for their indoor workers, particularly in rural areas and as we near the summer months.

The federal government looks at both a heat-related injury and heat stress, which “means the load of heat that a person experiences due to sources of heat or heat retention or the presence of heat in a work setting.” OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also co-developed a Heat Safety Tool smartphone app for both Android and iPhone devices but is not yet ready for indoor use and heat-index calculation.

Reducing the heat index to below 80°F is not feasible in many facilities across the country. Minnesota does currently have a heat-index procedure triggered at 77-86°F, with other states currently considering their own actions irrespective of new federal guidelines.  

While readers are viewing this article as we approach the winter season, manufacturers and employers in all sectors should wonder if their business is at risk of hitting the 80°F heat-index threshold. If so, what can you expect in the summer months? How much might you have to spend on engineering controls and PPE to help with employee weather acclimatization?

Yes, it is getting hot in here, and OSHA is turning up the heat on employers. Companies should start taking notice and tell the federal government to turn down the temperature on America’s manufacturers.