How HR can tailor workplace policies to address heat waves

A proliferation of severe climate and weather events may indicate that HR needs to adapt.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Recent heat waves, fueled by the climate crisis, have taken a toll not only on productivity but also on worker health.

The Department of Labor recently issued a hazard alert reminding employers of their general duty to protect workers in the heat, but the federal government has yet to implement a heat standard, and few states have regulations to protect workers from heat-related illnesses.

HR departments have a hand in creating policies that ensure workers can continue to work safely amid extreme weather events. Here are a few ways HR pros can consider adjusting their policies in light of record-breaking heat.

Shifting schedules. Rather than shutting down operations entirely, employers in high-risk industries like construction and warehousing may “try to move shifts, if it can be done, to later times, or rotate more people through,” John Ho, co-chair of the OSHA workplace safety practice at law firm Cozen O’Connor, told HR Brew.

Staff at DPR Construction, which has operations in multiple states, including those with historically hot climates like Florida, Texas, and Arizona, are “accustomed to working shifts that avoid peak heat of mid- to late afternoon,” Jose Garza, national environment, health, and safety leader with the firm, said via email. In addition to starting earlier, he said DPR “phases work at different times of day to take advantage of working in shaded areas of the site.”

Some firms go as far as putting employees on the night shift when there are heat waves. NPR spoke to a construction company in Phoenix that did this in 2016, with workers pouring concrete at 1 am.

Embracing flexibility. Employers who are able to offer flexible work will find this helpful during heat waves, Mansoor Soomro, a senior lecturer in sustainability and international business, leadership, management, and human resources at Teesside University International Business School, told the BBC last month.

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Offering remote or hybrid work, as well as shortened workdays, “cuts down on commuting, which can further drain employees’ energy. Employees can also feel more comfortable in the heat at home thanks to dressing informally,” he said.

Turning to tech. Investing in technology is another potential solution to ensuring worker safety in the heat. McCarthy Building Companies, which installs solar panels, has outfitted employees with wearable tech to monitor workers’ core body temperatures, HR Brew reported last year. The devices warn shift supervisors when employees exceed their heat threshold.

Some construction firms are now using AI to help forecast weather, as well, and adjust their projects if necessary, the Financial Times reported.

Developing a risk-management plan. The proliferation of severe climate and weather events points to a need for HR to develop risk management plans, Shankar Raman, global leader for the technology industry group at Willis Towers Watson, told HR Brew in January.

Ho recommended consulting OSHA’s guidance when developing a heat response plan. Though plans will differ depending on the industry or business, they should ensure workers receive additional rest periods, as well as adequate access to shade and water, especially if they’re outdoors, he said. Employers should consider giving new employees time to acclimate to the weather, as well, starting them on a two-hour shift, for example, before they take on a longer one. HR should spend time training employees and supervisors to spot signs of heat stress as well.

As leaders develop response plans, they should seek employee feedback if they can, Ho said. “OSHA likes to see employee involvement in preparing the policy…employees are the ones that are doing most of the work.”

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