New heat-illness regulations could take effect May 1

Issue Date: February 25, 2015
By Steve Adler

Despite objections from employer groups who maintain that no changes are necessary to assure employee safety, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board has approved revisions to the state's heat illness prevention standard.

Cal/OSHA, also known as the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said the revisions adopted last week are aimed at specifying the requirements for provision of water and shade, as well as ramping up requirements under high-heat provisions and adding new language on emergency response procedures, acclimation and training.

"These new regulations create compliance and enforceability problems that have not been resolved," said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. "We believe the current standard has been successful and that the additional provisions could create confusion."

But Little said CFBF and other representatives of agricultural employers had convinced the agency to modify the standard from its original proposal, to make it less burdensome than it would have been otherwise.

The specifics of the revised standard include:

  • Water must be "fresh, pure, suitably cool" and located as close as practicable to where employees are working, with exceptions when employers can demonstrate infeasibility. An original Cal/OSHA proposal, which the agency dropped, would have required water to be placed no farther than 400 feet from where employees are working—a requirement Little said would have been "impossible to meet in many instances due to physical barriers such as trellises and due to food-safety regulations that prevent placement of water coolers in production areas."
  • Shade must be present at 80 degrees, instead of the current 85, and must accommodate all employees on recovery or rest periods, plus those onsite who are taking meal breaks.
  • Employees taking a "preventive cool-down rest" must be monitored for symptoms of heat illness, encouraged to remain in the shade and not ordered back to work until symptoms are gone. Employees with symptoms must be provided appropriate first aid or emergency response.
  • High-heat procedures triggered at 95 degrees were tightened in the revised standard. Employers must ensure "effective" observation and monitoring, including a mandatory buddy system and regular communication with employees working by themselves. In a provision exclusive to agriculture, employees must be provided with a minimum 10-minute cool-down period every two hours during high-heat periods. Cal/OSHA had earlier proposed that the high-heat provisions become effective at 90 degrees, but Little said employers had shown the agency that doing so "would provide very little additional protection for employees."
  • Emergency response procedures must include effective communication, response to signs and symptoms of heat illness, and procedures for contacting emergency responders to help stricken workers.
  • Acclimation procedures must include close observation of all employees during a heat wave—defined as at least 80 degrees. New employees must be closely observed for their first two weeks on the job.

The board also requested that the state Office of Administrative Law approve an accelerated effective date of May 1, rather than July 1, which is when the changes would go into effect under normal circumstances. Such requests are routinely granted by the OAL, observers said. If that happens, employers must revise their heat safety programs and train employees in the next few weeks prior to May 1.

"It is obvious that the agency was determined to have this revised heat illness standard in place for this upcoming growing season, but we continue to believe that there's more work that needs to be done to ensure that agricultural employers and employees understand the new regulations," Little said.

One concern expressed by Little and other employer representatives involved the subjective nature of the new regulations, which they said could lead to confusion and misinterpretation.

The board adopted the revisions on a vote of 5-1, with board member Bill Jackson casting the negative vote.

"My belief is that the division made the decision that this is necessary and by God, we're going to do this," Jackson said. "There isn't an ounce of necessity."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.