heatwaveOSHA has raised the ire of advocacy groups by turning down a petition calling for a heat stress standard, opting instead to use its education and outreach campaign to alert employers and workers to the dangers as heat exposure.

“OSHA lauded the campaign’s ‘success’ without presenting any evidence of how the voluntary, self-enforcing campaign has led to a decrease in injuries or deaths from heat exposure,” charged Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The group calls OSHA’s decision “shortsighted,” citing “the searing temperatures we are seeing in the summer and the number of workers who are dying from heat.”

OSHA has a web page devoted to the subject of heat stress. It provides information and resources like illustrated, low-literacy fact sheets for workers, worksite posters for employers to display and fact sheets on how to protect workers from heat stress.

Not enough, says Public Citizen, which contends that a federal regulation is necessary to protect workers from heat stress, pointing to approximately 560 fatalities and more than 46,000 serious injuries from acute heat stress over the past two decades.

The first half of 2012 is already the warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The epidemic of worker injury and death due to heat exposure is projected only to worsen with climate change,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “OSHA’s denial makes explicit the agency’s position to ignore 40 years of expert consensus in the interest of placating industry.”

Dr. Thomas Bernard, a co-signer on Public Citizen’s petition, and a reviewer of the revised National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommendations for a heat stress standard 26 years ago, stated, “These deaths are completely preventable with just a few, inexpensive interventions, some of which have already been implemented in several states. The time is long overdue for a federal heat stress standard that will protect workers from dangerous heat exposure.”

Added Virginia Ruiz, attorney with Farmworker Justice and another co-signer on the petition, “Farmworkers suffer more than any other worker population from the effects of extreme heat. OSHA’s denial of our petition continues to leave adult and child farmworkers without the right to adequate water or a rest break, putting their lives at risk while picking our fruits and vegetables.”

In the absence of a standard, OSHA can hold employers accountable only through an enforcement mechanism called the General Duty Clause (GDC). In its letter, OSHA claimed it has “increased its focus on heat as a hazard during its [GDC] inspections.” However, Public Citizen says a review of federal data since its petition was researched a year ago shows that OSHA has issued only seven citations for unsafe heat practices since last August.

"North Carolina alone has issued as many during the same interval," says the group. "And with federal penalties averaging just over $2,000 per violation, even these rare citations do not serve as anything close to a deterrent.”