For the millions of Americans who work outdoors, in non-air-conditioned warehouses, or in hot environments like factories or steel foundries, the summer months can be more than just uncomfortable—they may be actively dangerous. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the threshold for "moderate occupational heat risk" at a heat index of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, some advocates argue that this standard is not nearly strict enough to protect employees from heat-related injury. Read on to learn more about how these types of injuries are treated under state workers' compensation laws and some potential changes to OSHA's regulations could impact workers' compensation laws and policies.
Are Workers' Compensation Benefits Available to Employees Made Ill by the Heat?
Each state handles the workers' compensation process a bit differently, but in all 50 states, workers' comp is designed to provide benefits (including compensation for medical payments, lost wages, and other injury-related expenses) to employees who suffer an on-the-job injury, illness, or even death. To receive these benefits, employees are required to report their accident to a supervisor within a specified period of time and to work with their employer to file a claim with either the employer's workers' comp insurer or a state agency designed to handle these claims.
Workers' comp claims can span a wide range of injuries, from traditional trips, slips, and falls to long-term hazards like exposure to asbestos or toxic chemicals. Heat-related injuries, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and complications relating to heat-induced fainting may be eligible for workers' compensation coverage as long as they're sufficiently related to the job duties and workplace.
This means that if you come into work a bit lightheaded because your car lacks air conditioning and then faint, hitting your head, your injury may not have a sufficient "nexus" with your workplace to provide you with coverage. But if you're forced to work in a non-air-conditioned facility and suffer adverse effects stemming from the heat, you'll have a much stronger claim for benefits.
What Changes May Be Coming to Workers' Compensation Benefits?
OSHA recently analyzed its threshold for occupational heat risks and concluded that the current guideline, which provides that a heat index of 91 degrees or higher is a "moderate occupational risk," may not be protective enough. The agency analyzed reports of workplace injury and found that the heat index was below 91 degrees in a number of injury cases, including several fatalities.
With this in mind, OSHA has issued some updated guidance that indicates whenever a workplace has a heat index of 85 degrees or higher, employers should implement a heat stress prevention program. This program can include, but isn't limited to, first aid training for employees, ready access to (free) fluids, and shady or cooler areas for rest breaks.
While this recommendation is just a suggestion and is not binding as law, employers who wish to avoid workers' compensation claims are likely to abide by it. It's possible that workers' compensation carriers may begin assessing higher premium rates on employers in high-heat industries or work environments that don't quickly enact a heat stress prevention program. Already, many insurers penalize employers whose violations of OSHA regulations result in employee injuries (and therefore workers' compensation claims).
In addition to this revised OSHA recommendation, a number of advocacy groups recently petitioned the acting OSHA leader to issue regulations that mandate rest breaks, water access, worker training, and air-conditioned rest areas throughout the country. Currently, employees in only three states and the U.S. military are formally protected against occupational heat stress, and some members of Congress have indicated their desire to expand these protections nationwide.
If you have been refused workers' compensation for a heat-related injury, contact a workers' compensation attorney for assistance.