Metal fabricators without indoor air control in shop could catch heat

Like it or not, OSHA is getting serious about protecting workers from excessive heat

Tired guy working on a machine in factory workshop

As OSHA takes the first steps toward establishing new heat standards for U.S. workers, companies need to address stifling indoor work environments. South_agency / E+ / Getty Images

When it’s hot, it’s hot. And it’s getting hotter.

June was the warmest month on record globally. The Copernicus Climate Change Service, using a reference period of 1991-2020, reported that global temperatures for June were 0.5 degrees C (just under 1 degree F) over the average, exceeding the preceding monthly record of June 2019. Parts of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and eastern Australia experienced significantly warmer-than-usual temperatures.

Of course, this is a year with an El Niño climate pattern, where hotter-than-normal temperatures in the Pacific Ocean alter typical weather patterns elsewhere in the world. Usually, hot years like this coincide when El Niño is active.

Meanwhile, after a long delay, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is taking formal steps to establish workplace heat standards. It’s currently soliciting input from small business owners for discussions on the subject.

Eric Hobbs, shareholder with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, told an audience at FMA’s 15th Annual Safety Conference in early May that it can take as long as eight years for a regulation to become official, so in the meantime, OSHA established a National Emphasis Program (NEP) in the spring to address heat illness concerns. NEPs provide OSHA the ability to focus its limited resources and conduct lawful inspections of particular employers than it normally might have the power to do otherwise. In other words, OSHA is getting serious about protecting workers from heat-related illnesses and even death.

As this is taking place, industry associations are already criticizing the move.

“When it comes to manufacturing, this proposed rule is simply a solution in search of a problem that does not exist in the precision machining industry,” said Miles Free, director, industry research and technology, at the Precision Machined Products Association.

You could probably extend that criticism to all of general industry. However, general industry and the construction, maritime, and agriculture industries are in the agency’s sights.

The interesting part of this conversation is that general industry doesn’t even rank high when it comes to heat-related deaths. According to OSHA statistics tracking “heat deaths” from 2017-2022, the construction industry leads with 30 deaths in that time frame, followed by agriculture (19), landscaping (14), roofing (8), and delivery (7). Give those outdoor workers another water break!

Some criticism in workers’ rights circles suggest that heat-related illnesses are underreported because they conflate a number of pre-existing conditions and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Even if that might be the case, OSHA has made it clear in the past that its main concerns with workers in the metal fabricating sector are cuts, broken bones, and amputations. Heat-related work environments weren’t too much of a concern for this sector over the past couple of decades.

As was stated earlier, OSHA’s steps to improve the lives of workers in the metal fabricating industry by guaranteeing a suitable indoor work environment might be a case of classic overreach. Now more than ever, the market is ready to correct this danger to workers.

Right now, companies can’t find employees to fill open positions. Do you think the metal fabricating shop with a 90-degree-F indoor temperature is going to be the employer of choice in town when a competitor—or any other company for that matter—offers the same pay and an air-conditioned interior? Millennials and Gen Z workers are very particular for whom they want to work. They aren’t lining up to work in a sauna.

Luckily, most metal fabricating environments have evolved to offer a more comfortable indoor work environment. Sure, it can get hot with laser cutting machines and robotic welding cells operating shift after shift, but the heat can be offset with air conditioning and fans that help to provide the proper airflow. Working in a fab shop doesn’t have to be debilitating because it’s too hot.

We’d all like to see OSHA have one less reason to show up at the front door for an inspection, but that really shouldn’t be the focus now because it looks like that might be inevitable, given federal interest and some states formulating their own heat standards as they wait for federal guidance. Metal fabricating companies should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do for their workers.

If you want manufacturing to be cool, the work can’t be done in an oven.

About the Author
FMA Communications Inc.

Dan Davis


2135 Point Blvd

Elgin, IL 60123


Dan Davis is editor-in-chief of The FABRICATOR, the industry's most widely circulated metal fabricating and forming magazine, and its sister publications, The Tube & Pipe Journal and The Welder. He has been with the publications since April 2002.