Water. Rest. Shade.

It’s a simple message, but one that can save lives. Last week, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will launch a national, educational, heat-stress prevention campaign targeting employers and their employees.

The national initiative comes on the heels of, and models itself on, a similar campaign implemented last summer by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL/OSHA). California’s 2010 educational campaign built on an earlier success: in 2006, the State became the first in the country to adopt a heat stress regulation for employers, prompted by a series of 13 heat-related deaths in August of 2005.

In the United States, over 2.5 million farmworkers labor in the summer heat to harvest the food destined for our tables. These workers have a right to the information that will facilitate healthy decision-making in the fields. OSHA has done a great thing in deciding to educate these workers and their employers. However, I suspect that the success of California’s campaign did not rest solely on the fact that it was a well-designed educational initiative, but rather hinged on a very important truth: the weight of law packs a heavy punch.

Decisions are not made based solely on knowledge, nor are they made in a vacuum.  While knowledge is important, individuals make decisions on the basis of knowledge, in the context of interpersonal relationships and with the influence of cultural and social norms and organizational and governmental policies.

If OSHA truly wishes to reduce workforce mortality from heat-related illness, it must reflect on a simple question: would California’s educational heat stress campaign have been so effective if it didn’t have a regulation to back it up?

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