John Stancavage: Health care vigilance for workers a must in heat
BY JOHN STANCAVAGE World Business Editor
Sunday, July 31, 2011
7/31/11 at 3:28 AM
The prolonged extreme heat that's been troubling area residents represents potential trouble for employers as well.
Companies need to keep their businesses going, but at the same time should take precautions to safeguard staff members. That can be harder than it might appear at first glance.
While I work in an air conditioned office, many Tulsans are not so lucky. Businesses in the manufacturing, assembly, construction and repair industries often have no choice but to face the heat full-on.
There are not too many federal or local laws pertaining specifically to hot weather, but how an employer exposes a worker to such an "extreme weather condition" can occasionally bring a fine or action from regulators, according to Michael Pacewicz.
Pacewicz, an attorney focusing on labor and employment law, works in the Tulsa office of Crowe & Dunlevy.
"There are a lot of things employers can do to help," he told me in a telephone interview. "They should allow for frequent breaks, make sure there is access to water and get people out of the heat when they can."
That's where an employer's efforts to genuinely try to help workers can get tricky, however. For one thing, a manager may wonder if certain individuals might have medical conditions that warrant special attention. But companies generally are restricted from being able to seek this kind of data.
"Employers might be well advised to give their workers the opportunity to voluntaryily disclose such conditions if the employee believes he or she will be particularly susceptible to extreme heat, so that the employer can take appropriate precautions," Pacewicz said.
Altering a worker's job task or hours also could raise issues in a union shop that would need to be discussed.
Another matter facing employers is dress code. It is not uncommon for employers to let some workers wear cooler clothing during hot snaps. Even here, though, there are limits.
"An employee who normally wears a shirt and tie might be able to switch to a polo shirt, for example," the attorney said.
However, even the most oven-like factory likely is going to say no to cutoff jeans or sleeveless undershirts.
And, what about the service industry? Do you really want to see hedges being trimmed by a middle-aged guy in a Speedo?
Let's shift back quickly so I can purge that last mental picture from my mind.
Along with general clothing concerns, there are plenty of jobs that usually require some special attire, such as welders who need certain gear to stay safe. Likewise, a firefighter would have a limited ability to alter his or her uniform when duty called.
"The bottom line is that there are many precautions to take regarding heat-related illness in the workplace," Pacewicz said. "A company may lose a little time, but the potential productivity that could be lost - up to 12 weeks for a medical leave - is much greater."