Manufacturing leaders who don’t often visit factory and distribution facilities may be ignoring a serious safety hazard. And it's one that can get them in trouble. An employer has a general duty under OSHA to provide a work place free of recognized hazards, which includes excessive heat. And an employer that claims to be lean implicitly promises to respect employees, not to enclose them in an inferno.
Besides the respect due to workers, poor working conditions come at a cost. Absenteeism and lagging production are just surface issues. Workers overcome by heat need immediate medical treatment, a risk to their health and an increase of health care costs. Heat-induced illness also causes interrupted production, perhaps higher insurance rates, and belongs in OSHA safety records. In a union shop, poor working conditions can result in work stoppages and serious conflict.
The NIOSH website of the Center for Disease Control website is pretty clear about criteria and consequences. I'm quoting pretty closely, because a manager in an air conditioned office may not look at working in a heat wave this way:
- During unusually hot weather conditions lasting longer than two days, the number of heat illnesses usually increases. Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, fainting, fatigue send workers to the hospital or home.
- Some causes are body fluid deficit, loss of appetite, buildup of heat in living and work areas, and breakdown of air-conditioning equipment. It is advisable to adhere to preventive measures during hot spells and to avoid unnecessary or unusual stressful activity.
- Heat promotes accidents due to the slipperiness of sweaty palms, dizziness, or the fogging of safety glasses.
- Working in heat lowers the mental alertness and physical performance of an individual. Increased body temperature and physical discomfort promote irritability, anger, and other emotional states which sometimes cause workers to overlook safety procedures or to divert attention from hazardous tasks.
- Many industries have attempted to reduce the hazards of heat stress by introducing engineering controls, training workers in the recognition and prevention of heat stress, and implementing work-rest cycles.
- The amount of heat produced during hard, steady work is much higher than that produced during intermittent or light work. Therefore, one way of reducing the potential for heat stress is to make the job easier or lessen its duration by providing adequate rest time.
- Mechanization of work procedures can isolate workers from heat sources (perhaps in an air-conditioned booth) and increase overall productivity by decreasing the time needed for rest.
- Another approach to reducing the level of heat stress is the use of engineering controls which include ventilation and heat shielding.
John Holmquist, blogger at the Michigan Employment Law Connection, also reminds us that it is only a matter of time before we hear of employees being disciplined for complaining in Facebook about heat at work and the employer’s unwillingness to do anything about it. The NLRB has supported employees making negative social media posts, and even employee action like walking off the job when safety hazards are not addressed.
It can be worse than just a mention on Facebook, witness Amazon’s embarrassing position when newspapers reported that fulfillment center employees in several U.S. cities were expected to reach high production goals in sweltering conditions. The company has since spent $52 million [corrected from $52 on Aug 1, 2012] on air conditioning for those facilities. If they had done it sooner, they’d be hailed as enlightened instead of hardhearted.