It’s Summer and I Have Nothing to Wear: Personal Protective Equipment and Summer Dress Codes
Summer is here, and so is the sun. That means many people will try to stay cool while working and many businesses relax dress codes to allow for shorts and sandals. But workplace hazards do not take a summer vacation, and the hot weather also brings its own dangers. A previous blog post addressed steps employers could take to prevent heat illness. Not only should employers implement heat illness prevention programs, but they must continue to make sure workers wear their personal protective equipment (PPE) even in the summer. PPE is the last line of defense to shield workers from on-the-job safety hazards. Most workers would likely acknowledge the importance of PPE, but in hot, sunny, summer weather, it can be very tempting to remove their hard hats or other PPE to cool down, even for a moment, and they may be reluctant or forget to put it back on. Removing required PPE wear can subject workers to increased risk of injury or illness and can subject employers to OSHA violations.
The list of PPE items employers must provide is lengthy and includes such items as respirators and chemical-resistant gloves, but it does not include PPE to address the specific hazards of sun and hot summer weather, such as sunscreen, sunglasses, or UV protective clothing. Such items do exist, however, and include hard hats with vents, sweat liners, cooling bandanas, ventilated gloves, and anti-fogging goggles. For work in high-temperature, outdoor settings, employers should choose PPE that is breathable and light in color to reflect the heat. Heat-protective gloves or sleeves may help workers handle materials that have become hot from the sun. Employers should consider providing seasonally appropriate PPE since the cost is minimal compared to the cost of losing workers to heat-related illnesses. Moreover, these measures reinforce a positive safety culture and reflect concern for the well-being of workers.
Additionally, instead of replacing existing PPE, employers can invest in cooling accessories that workers can wear beneath or attached to items they already have that dissipate heat through evaporative cooling, such as tank tops and vests. Evaporative cooling towels are also available and can improve the comfort of PPE on a hot day. There are also neck shade attachments for hard hats.
The heat is not the only risk associated with summer weather and outdoor work. Brightness is also a potential hazard. OSHA standards 1926.102 and 1910.133 require employers to ensure that employees use appropriate eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from various sources including injurious light radiation. Most employees comply with these regulations by using safety eyewear. In the summer sun, protective eyewear should also limit glare, not fog, and protect the eyes from UV rays.
Not only should employers be mindful of protecting workers who are exposed to sun and heat risks outside, but also they must keep indoor workers protected. Relaxed summer dress may put indoor workers at an increased risk of injury and illness. Casual dress codes are increasingly popular in a variety of workplaces across many different industries. In hot, summer months, some businesses may even allow employees to wear shorts, particularly if the workplace (like a warehouse) is not air-conditioned.
While there is nothing specific to wearing shorts, OSHA standards recommend that businesses implement a dress code that is designed to promote workplace safety. The PPE standard, 1910.132, is broad enough to encompass workplace dress codes. It states that protective clothing should be provided, used and maintained in sanitary and reliable conditions when hazards are present in the workplace. Those hazards include “environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards, or mechanical irritants” that could cause injury or impairment. If there is an incident or an inspection, the employer should be confident that the dress code was appropriate and complied with regulation 1910.132(a). Employers must strike a balance. Erring too far on the side of caution in requiring long pants, jeans or other protective clothing may subject workers to untenable conditions in hot temperatures. The dress code should be crafted in a way that protects workers from the specific hazards in the workplace while allowing them to perform their jobs in comfort. Shorts may not be appropriate for some workplaces, but may be perfectly acceptable in others. OSHA leaves it up to employers to decide whether clothing provides adequate protection.
Summer footwear, including open-toed sandals, presents its own challenges. OSHA guidelines do specifically address shoes and workplace safety. Standard 1910.136(a) states “[t]he employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear when working in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling or rolling objects, or objects piercing the sole, and where such employee’s feet are exposed to electrical hazards.” Open-toed sandals do not protect falling objects or spills and could therefore be a violation of 1910.136(a), if such hazards are present. The dress code should be appropriately tailored to the particular hazards of the workplace.
Whatever the appropriate dress code for the environment, it should be clearly communicated and apply fairly to all races and genders. Employers must enforce the dress code consistently and evenly, and refrain from implementing a dress code that discriminates against individuals with disabilities.