Working in Las Vegas in July. (Photo: Ronda Churchill)
When workers die in extreme heat, it’s rarely because employers have ignored workplace heat standards. It’s because there are none.
There are no federal standards to protect workers from heat-related hazards, even as heat waves become more intense and more frequent due to climate change.
Under the Biden administration, the Occupational, Safety and Health Administration plans to create a federal heat standard, but that process could take years, leaving state rules as the only near-term option to protect workers.
Nevada, like most states, has no specific regulations on how employers should handle heat illness. However, that may soon change.
In 2020 Nevada officials announced they were starting the rulemaking process to create permanent regulations amending Nevada’s occupational safety and health rules to protect outdoor and indoor workers from heat-related illnesses and injuries.
On Wednesday, state regulators discussed the most current draft of the proposed regulations during a virtual workshop.
A draft of the proposed regulations would require employers to provide training relating to heat illness once workers are exposed to extreme heat. At 90 degrees, employers would be required to monitor their workers for signs of heat illness, provide cooldown rest periods and develop emergency medical plans, including contacting medical services.
The proposed regulations have received pushback from industries that say Nevada businesses already follow guidelines to prevent heat illness, and worry they could see additional costs or fines under proposed rules if they are found noncompliant.
“There should be no issues with compliance as long as employers are doing what they say they’re doing,” said William Gardner, chief administrative officer of the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the virtual workshop.
Josh Hicks, who spoke for the Nevada Home Builders Association, questioned the need for regulations and requested more data on why the regulations are needed.
Officials for the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations, who oversee Nevada OSHA, say the regulations are necessary to improve worker safety given trends in heat stress complaints by employees in the state.
In the last century, temperatures in the Southwest have increased by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate scientists predict that under the worst-case scenario, the annual average Southwest temperature could increase by 8.6°F by 2100. Nevada and other regions in the Southwest could get up to 45 more days each year with maximum temperatures of 90°F or higher.
In 2020 Nevada OSHA received 113 complaints related to heat stress, a significant increase in heat stress complaints compared to previous years. In 2019, Nevada OSHA received 43 heat-stress complaints from workers. In 2018, the agency received 49 complaints and in 2017 it received 63. Nevada OSHA accepted a total of 47 worker’s compensation claims for heat illness in Nevada fiscal year 2020.
And in 2021, state regulators reported two heat-related fatalities in construction.
Nevada OSHA also conducted fewer in-field heat stress inspections in 2020 than in recent years, despite an increase in complaints related to heat stress. In 2020 only four heat stress inspections were conducted. A significant drop from the 15 in-field inspections performed in 2018 and the 14 performed in 2017.
According to the Nevada Division of Industrial Relations, the percentage of complaints resulting in an inspection varies from year to year due to multiple factors, including the validity of the complaints, whether the agency had jurisdiction, the agency’s enforcement priorities and staffing.
The Division was overwhelmed with COVID-related complaints in 2020, leading to staffing shortages to conduct in-field heat stress inspections, said officials.
Worker advocates say many workers are not aware of their right to water, shade and rest under the Nevada OSHA plan, making enforcement of abusive employers difficult.
State regulators may have some ability to prevent heat risks under a general duty clause that requires workplaces be “free from recognized hazards” that could lead to injuries or fatalities. However, labor groups say it's difficult to regulate heat using the general duty clause, adding that the lack of specifics makes it hard to prove employers exposed an employee to danger.
Nevada’s loose guidelines likely contributed to the spike in heat stress complaints once in-field heat stress inspections were reduced, said Bliss Requa-Trautz, director for the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, which facilitates OSHA training in Spanish for limited-English speaking at-risk and hard-to-reach workers.
Implementation of the heat regulations is still a few months away, said Victoria Carreon, an administrator at Nevada Department of Business and Industry. The final version of the regulation must be approved by lawmakers on the Legislative Commission before it can be applied.
The official draft of the regulation will now be sent to the Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau for review before heading to legislators for approval.
"The regulation is adjusting based on feedback," Gardner said. "We believe this process has been very helpful for the workers on Nevada."
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