California Governor Jerry Brown has declared the drought a state of emergency. Meanwhile, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) wants employees to drink more water. Cal/OSHA’s standard for the prevention of “heat illness,” which the agency defines as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat syncope, heat stroke, and any other “serious medical condition resulting from the body’s inability to cope with a particular heat load,” requires an employer to provide access to, and encourage employees to drink, potable water.1
Drinks Are on the House for Construction Workers
Nobody in Southern California understands the need for access to potable drinking water more than construction workers – any worker involved in the construction, alteration, painting, repairing, construction maintenance, renovation, removal, or wrecking of any fixed structure or its parts.2 However, an employer in the construction industry cannot discharge his duty to provide access to potable water by telling his employees to drink out of the sink. Cal/OSHA regulations require employers in the construction industry to choose one of two basic methods for providing potable water: (1) drinking fountains or (2) portable dispensers (e.g., a barrel, pail, or tank).
Most employers in the construction industry use portable dispensers to provide potable water. The improper use of a dispenser can make a construction site even more hazardous than it already is. The dispenser must have a faucet so that employees do not have to dip the water from the dispenser and spill water all over the place. The dispenser must be capable of tight closure and have a design and construction that ensure it will remain in a sanitary condition.3Furthermore, the employer must clearly mark the dispenser to identify it as containing drinking water so that employees will not use it for any other purpose.4
Because employees may not put their mouths on the dispenser, the employer must supply them with (1) single-service cups with sanitary containers, (2) sealed one-time use containers, or (3) reusable, closable containers. If an employer provides cups or one-time use containers, he must provide a receptacle for employees to toss them.5 If he provides reusable containers, he must ensure that each employee marks his container to identify it as his and that it stays in sanitary condition.6 Cleanliness is next to godliness, however, so employees may not share cups or reusable containers, unless they properly and effectively sanitize them between sips by different users.7
The right to access drinking water to prevent heat illness would not mean much if an employer in the construction industry could make his employees wait until the end of a hot day to drink it. If the employer does not plumb or otherwise continuously supply potable water, he must provide it in sufficient quantity at the beginning of the work shift so that each employee has one-quart of water per hour for the entire shift.8 The employer may begin the shift with smaller quantities of water if he has effective procedures for replenishing water during the shift to allow employees to drink one-quart or more per hour.9
Here Comes the Sun: Provision of Drinking Water in High Heat
Every employer in the construction industry must implement high-heat procedures when the temperature reaches 95 degrees.10 Those procedures must include reminding employees throughout the work shift to drink plenty of water.11 In addition, every employer in the construction industry must train his employees on certain topics before they begin work that the employer should expect will expose them to the risk of heat illness. Those topics include the importance of frequently consuming small quantities of water, up to four cups per hour, when the work environment is hot, and employees are likely to sweat more than usual in the performance of their duties.12