Legal Heat

Attorney advises what employers must do to keep workers safe

By Bill Dries

A utility vehicle loaded with gear, ladders and lift buckets just isn’t complete without a large water cooler strapped to the rear, especially in the hot Memphis summer.

But the coolers, and other every day sights like wet towels draped under a worker’s hardhat or a crew taking a mandatory break in the shade, are the best evidence of workplace planning that meets a legal standard.

“It’s really relevant in this area where we have an obligation as employer to keep a safe workplace that even includes your construction and any outdoor workplace as well,” said attorney Courtney Leyes, an associate at Fisher and Phillips LLP in Memphis.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, doesn’t have specific standards for how employers should deal with the heat at work, but it does require a plan be in place.

Industrial construction site in Olive Branch (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

A Regency Homebuilders crew (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Workers at River City Steel (Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

Ricardo Calderon of GreenPRO Landscapes irrigates trees along Plough Boulevard near Memphis International Airport. (Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

“They are to provide this generally safe work environment under OSHA,” Leyes said. “You can’t just say they’ll drink water. You have to make sure that you have these standard breaks and you are enforcing those breaks. In Tennessee you are required to give workers breaks anyway after a certain amount of time.”

The federal agency offers online resources and training as well as different guides on how to recognize when a worker is too hot.

The ideas include employers training workers how to recognize when a co-worker is overheated and having a plan for when the heat index reaches a certain point.

The requirement extends to indoor settings where the air conditioning may go out for an extended period of time.

“If it’s going to be out for more than an hour or two, it depends on what time of day it is,” Leyes said. “But if nobody’s coming within an hour or two and it’s starting to get really hot in the office, I would send your employees home and see who can telework from home.”

Leyes’ firm represents owners of warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing companies on both sides of the Mississippi state line, some with air conditioning and others without.

“If you’re in the red and you have a warehouse that is not air-conditioned, then you may want to call off the day or schedule essential activities early in the morning or reschedule for a day where it’s better,” she said.

When the office is a rooftop or a stretch of flat road without trees, employers are still obligated to have a plan.

“I think employers would have to be even more vigilant in monitoring employees,” Leyes said. “Maybe allowing them a trailer where they have air conditioning to take a break, or getting in their trucks and turning on the air conditioning and cooling down. If there’s not any shade, taking frequent breaks or rescheduling that type of work, if possible, around times when the heat index is not as high.”

The standards even apply to firefighters who even in the worst heat or cold are battling to get a fire out as quickly as possible.

Just about any substantial fire in heat of 90 degrees or more is likely to become a two-alarm fire – not because of the intensity of the flames, but because of the summer heat that can quickly drain the energy from a firefighter who is carrying equipment and wearing heavy gear.

Memphis firefighters on such scenes often rotate to “rehab” areas in 15-minute intervals. The areas include water sprays as well as medical personnel to check their vital signs.