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NEA News

Addressing Excessive Heat in the Workplace Including Schools

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed a new rule to protect workers from extreme heat.
school building
Published: July 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  1. To combat hazardous heat conditions in the workplace, including in our schools, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) proposed a new rule for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings.
  2. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an average of 40 heat-related fatalities have occurred each year from 2011 to 2022.
  3. Research has shown how heat can have detrimental effects on physical health and impact student learning outcomes.

Extreme temperatures affect every member of the school community, from food service workers preparing lunch in poorly ventilated kitchens, bus drivers driving students home without air conditioning, school groundskeepers doing campus maintenance, and students testing on hot days. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a proposed rule that aims to protect workers from excessive heat in the workplace, including public schools in in states with OSHA-approved State plans. 

Currently, there is no federal OSHA heat standard. The proposal has the potential to create significant change, especially for educators working in buildings without proper ventilation and air conditioning.  

Few school districts have mandated temperature maximums. “The absence of standards …means we are allowing kids to sit in 95-degree classrooms leaving students unable to concentrate on learning due to high heat and humidity levels,” Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias told NEA. 

Under the rule, OSHA would require covered employers to create a plan to evaluate and control heat hazards in the workplace with the goal of reducing the number of occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. This regulation applies to workplaces which fall under OSHA’s jurisdiction, including public schools in OSHA-approved State Plans, general industry, construction, maritime, and agriculture sectors.   

Health Hazards 

“Heat is the leading cause of death among all hazardous weather conditions in the United States,” according to the OSHA website. “Excessive heat in the workplace can cause a number of adverse health effects, including heat stroke and even death, if not treated properly.” 

From 2011 to 2022, 479 workers in the U.S. died from heat exposure according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means there were about 40 deaths per year in that time frame from hazardous heat.  

“Some workplaces have heat generation from industrial processes and expose workers to sources of radiant heat, such as ovens and furnaces,” the OSHA website said. This can be true for food service staff inside our schools as well, making a need for heat regulation necessary. “Additionally, employers may not take adequate steps to protect their employees from exposure to hazardous heat (e.g., not providing rest breaks in cool areas).” 

The heat proposal explains that while the public can avoid prolonged heat exposure, many workers across the country do not have that privilege as they are required to work through long, ultra-hot shifts.  

The Impact on Schools 

The need for climate control is something educators understand all too well and have long advocated for change to create safe learning environments for all students.  

“Sitting in a school that feels like a sauna has a devastating impact on students,” said Sara Rowe, an elementary school office manager who spoke to NEA about the impact of heatwaves on students. “We saw it every day, but we were told to think outside the box, be creative. We didn't really feel supported.” This is not the first time our members have raised concerns about extreme temperatures in schools. 

"When we think about education, we think about curriculum and teaching, and lunch and recess, and transportation and socialization, but the role of the school building is an afterthought,” said Joseph Allen, director Outdoor of Harvard University's Healthy Buildings Program and Associate Professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, who spoke to NEA about proper air conditioning in schools. “The school building is as essential to learning as all of those other factors.” 

Heat Prevention Plan 

The federal OSHA standard to protect workers from heat has been in the works for years. OSHA asked for feedback and many educators offered perspectives. “We know heat illness is preventable: listening to workers to develop a heat prevention plan and enacting measures like paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water, and limiting time exposed to heat WILL save lives and makes work more productive and safe,” one commenter stated. 

CEA President Dias also added her input on the notice, asking for a law or regulation that limits the maximum temperatures for school classrooms.  

“Although OSHA does not have cognizance over matters impacting students in schools, it is important to note that ancillary benefits to establishing temperature standards for schools are the health benefits that would accrue to children,” Dias said. “As ever the case, the working conditions in schools are also the learning conditions affecting our children.” 

The National Education Association supports this new rule that will create safer working and learning conditions across the country. To further support the initiative, submit comments on the proposed standard when it is officially published in the Federal Register.  

“Your input will help us develop a final rule that adequately protects workers, is feasible for employers, and is based on the best available evidence,” OSHA said on its website. 

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.