Whatcom County builders question regulation of ‘common sense’
Pacific Northwest businesses are like bears.
During the cold, dark winter days, they sleep and save their energy for the long summer days filled with buzzing activity. There’s an urgency to summer for those businesses, a time to “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak.
That sense of urgency can lead to long hours in the summer sun for many employees — literally. Those long hours, coupled with the heat of the summer, can lead to heat illnesses, which can lead to health complications and even death.
After three deaths in two summers from heat-related illnesses, Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries (L and I) declared an emergency in 2006, enacting rules designed to protect workers and hold employers accountable.
This summer, L and I enacted another emergency rule, although some wonder where the emergency is and see the rule as unnecessary red tape regulating something that should be common sense.
“The sun has been going up and down for thousands of years,” said Bill Quehrn, president of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. “Why this year do we have to have an emergency rule?”
L and I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said having a rule in place for the summer was important.
“Last year was a quick fix to get a rule in place,” she said. “This year was more of a model rule.”
The rule is short and simple, and Fischer said it contains standard information.
In essence, the rule requires businesses with employees who work outside to:
• Have written procedures to prevent heat-related illness
• Provide one quart of drinking water per-worker-per-hour on days when employees are exposed to the hazards of heat-related illness
• Establish procedures to respond to employees who show signs of heat-related illness
• Provide effective heat-related-illness prevention training to employees and supervisors
Fischer said L and I began working on the rule in January, and after this summer’s rule expires in September, the department will work on implementing a permanent version. That process requires a public forum before it’s made into law. But Fischer said this summer’s emergency rule did have input from businesses that would be regulated.
The reaction to the rule has been positive for the most part, Fischer said. But in some sectors, the reception has been only lukewarm.
“It’s too bad they have to make a rule, but people have died,” said Dianne Lowe, safety manager for Haskell Corp. “There has to be a rule to enforce it.”
Lowe said in the past, making sure employees were safe from heat-related illnesses was moderated by common sense.
But after the three deaths in two years and a slew of claims to L and I about heat-related illnesses, the department decided common sense was not enough.
“Some employers won’t use common sense to protect employees unless there are consequences,” Fischer said.
But creating an umbrella rule that mirrors what should be common sense is difficult.
“It’s real hard for the state to write rules about common sense,” said Winton Smith, owner of Western Roofing. “When you start writing rules that fit all situations, you’re going to miss the mark.”
Lowe said taking into account age, health status and other unknown factors such as medications makes it difficult to manage how heat might affect individual workers.
“So much of managing a workforce is knowing your crew,” Lowe said.
Lowe said knowing when workers are acclimated to a warmer environment is difficult to measure.
“That’s pretty hard to track,” Lowe said. “How do you know when somebody’s acclimated to an environment?”
One of the main questions is how L and I enforces the emergency rule.
“We’re a little bit on pins and needles waiting for the state to enforce it,” Smith said. “And a lot of people are in the same boat.”
During routine inspection of businesses, Fischer said L and I will check for signs of heat-related illness among employees, check to see if the employer has a program in place, if they’ve trained employees about the dangers of heat and if they have adequate water.
“But we’re not assessing employees’ individual risk,” she said. “They have personal risk factors like their general health and clothing. We’re not actually assessing the employee’s ability to work in the heat.”
East vs. West
Washington is home to four climates, and summer temperatures in the Western part of the state are typically cooler than in the east.
“In this climate it’s going to be rare that we have day after day of sunshine,” Quehrn said. “It’s a problem I almost wish we had.”
Smith said in his business he has to concentrate on safety all the time, not just from the heat. He said Western Roofing has held classes for employees and changed the company safety plan to include information about heat-related illnesses, but that temperature has not been a problem for his employees.
“Where I’m working in my shop it hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “But maybe in other places it has. I don’t see everything that the state may be dealing with.”
Bellingham-based Haskell Corp. has job sites around the Pacific Northwest and into Alaska, and Lowe said that at job sites in Eastern Washington, the rule is accepted more than in the west.
“On the east side they don’t have that mentality because they’re dealing with it on a daily basis,” she said.
But Fischer said the rule still applies to Western Washington. She said acclimation to changing temperatures is one of the main risk factors in heat-related illness.
“The problem here in Western Washington is that when we get a heat wave, people don’t really get acclimated to hot weather,” she said. “People may not realize what a risk working in the heat can be.”
Besides offering shelter and water, there are other ways to acclimate employees to hot temperatures.
“One of the easy things you can adjust is work hours,” Lowe said.
She said another is to make sure employees take extra breaks when it’s hot and to take off protective clothing during those breaks.
One of the main ways to prevent heat-related illness is communication. Lowe said if they know it will be 90 degrees, supervisors communicate where water will be and review heat safety information in weekly safety meetings.
Warming up to the rule
Fischer said information about heat-related illnesses has increased in Washington industries because of the implementation of the heat stress rules the last two years.
“Before that it was information about heat with dogs or children,” she said. “But you didn’t hear, ‘Hey, watch out for those guys working on the roof in 100 degrees.’”
L and I has resources on its website for employers to train employees, as well as model procedures for complying with the rule.
Haskell has incorporated training for heat stress into their first-day orientation, regardless of location. Lowe said the company has used training materials provided by L and I and the Association of General Contractors of Washington to implement the heat stress training to workers as well as supervisors.
“It’s not just one safety cop out in the field watching people,” Lowe said. “You spend one hour on a training session, it pays off.”
Fischer said the implementation of the permanent rule will include an economic impact statement to determine how much compliance may cost employers.
“The cost is probably the water,” she said. “If they have to bring it in, then that is something they have to consider.”
Fischer said there have been payoffs because of the rule. She said a nursery company located in Western Washington e-mailed her recently about how one of its employees noticed another having trouble opening a door and was confused. They recognized that as symptoms of heat stress and took steps to cool down the person, which may have saved their life.
“Because they had been trained, they recognized it right away,” Fischer said.
Quehrn said safety in the workplace training is essential, but he doesn’t think L and I needs a rule for coping with heat.
“This one is a little over the top,” he said.
But L and I expects to have a permanent rule in place for next year, and it may still change from this year’s emergency rule. Fischer said L and I will evaluate the effectiveness of the emergency rule after it ends in September. But she said she expects little changes.
Heat stress resources
Dept. of Labor and Industries
Assoc. of General Contractors of Washington
AGC Heat Stress Prevention Program
Center for Disease Control
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat