A Politically Incorrect Guide to Protecting your Employees

Your people with chronic dehydration and sunburns, as well as some of the drug users, will need extra protection . . . but, of course, you won't know that.

THERE are a ton of resources available from OSHA, NIOSH, medical associations, and the like explaining all of the signs of heat stress and what to do about them. You can easily get those online or with a simple phone call. Rather than rehashing those things here, I'm going to spend a couple of minutes talking to you about a few things you may not have considered regarding your employees and protecting them from heat stress. It's not going to be "politically correct," because I'm a realist.

Some of your employees are overweight, some are obese, and some are just plain fat. Lots of them smoke. Many are sedentary and lack physical fitness. Others are old, nearing retirement age and having a variety of typical age-related maladies. A few of them are alcoholics. There are probably a number of recreational drug users and at least a couple of abusers. Some are constantly dehydrated because they don't drink enough water. Others have chronic diseases, infections, sunburns, diarrhea--you name it.

The single term we use to describe this group of people these days, however politically incorrect it may be, is average. Your average worker is at a much higher risk of injury or death from heat stress now than at any time in history because of all of these hidden factors that exacerbate the effects of heat on the body.

Much to your disadvantage as a safety professional, federal and state privacy laws, the EEOC, your Human Resources director, your ethics committee, and a host of others prevent you from asking questions or gathering information of this nature about the people you were hired to protect. However, if you think the fact that you can't ask employees about these factors will save your butt if an employee under your care suffers a heat-related injury or death, you probably should stop reading and start polishing up your resume right now.

Every safety professional knows that laws, regulations, and insurance requirements are becoming stricter than ever as they relate to personal protective equipment. Workers in dozens of industries have been awarded millions in damages when employers have failed to provide necessary safety equipment, apparel, or devices . . . even in situations where no regulation or guideline existed to instruct the employer how to protect its workers. It is clear the burden is on the company to determine whether hazards exist and to protect its workers from them to the best of its ability. Juries often believe employers could have done a better job. Suffice it to say that the deck is stacked against you when it comes to collecting information to protect your employees from the dangers in your workplace.

Technological advances and health care's evolution have resulted in more types of dangers from which to protect workers, as well as better ways to protect them from such hazards. Many of the required types of PPE create additional dangers simply by their use alone, and the most common and significant additional danger is heat stress. Studies that develop the standards for protecting employees are always politically correct; nearly every one I've read has described the test subjects as average, but they never meet my definition of average. The National Library of Medicine published a study for the American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal titled "Reduced work tolerance associated with wearing protective clothing and respirators," which defined the subjects as "nine healthy men (mean age=24.8 years, weight 75.3kg, max VO2=44.6mL/kg/min)." I don't call those subjects average; those are soldiers or athletes compared to the workers in many offices and shops in our country today. Therefore, standards that are determined using these types of subjects have to be taken with a grain of salt. In short, you should do as much as possible to protect your people from the effects of heat, and sometimes even that won't be enough.

More occupations than ever require the use of layers of additional clothing, sturdier footwear, headgear, gloves, encapsulated suits, harnesses, and heavy gear and equipment. Many situations arise in which there may be more than one hazard present in a working environment. This means that not only must the worker use various combinations of PPE, but also those individual items must be compatible with one another. If you provide a protective suit to a worker, that worker also must be provided with a cooling vest or some sort of compatible heat protection, as well. Then you have to think about how long he can work between breaks, how much fluid he needs to replace, and how to recognize when someone doesn't fit the guidelines in your OSHA brochure or your NIOSH manual. There are lots of questions, and it is up to you to come up with the correct answers.

The Need for New Solutions
Wearing protective garments and equipment has spawned some new terminology: Work Tolerance Time and Moisture Vapor Transfer Rate are a couple that are getting a lot of attention these days. New problems need new solutions.

* Work Tolerance Time (WTT) is a formula for factoring work variables, including temperature, humidity, the level of energy expended, work practices, rest periods, PPE, etc., and then determining a reasonable method to allow the worker to perform the associated task without compromising his health. Your sedentary and unfit employees are not likely to measure up to the standards, so you will have to adjust and make your own standards. (But, remember, you can't ask. And the first time you don't promote the smoker or the fat guy to the new job, you're probably going to face a discrimination lawsuit, even though you're just trying to keep your people alive.)

* Moisture Vapor Transfer Rate (MVTR) is related to the fabric used to manufacture the clothing and PPE being worn. When compared to the MVTR of an unclothed body, even simple cotton clothing worn loosely can reduce a person's ability to dissipate heat through evaporation by more than 15 percent. Cotton clothing chemically treated for flame or ambient heat protection obstructs the fabric's ability to "breathe," resulting in even less heat dissipation. The MVTR of impermeable PPE is 0 percent by design, which is very dangerous if the employee is not protected from heat that results from wearing it. Your people with chronic dehydration and sunburns, as well as some of the drug users, will need extra protection . . . but, of course, you won't know that. Be safe and factor it into your safety plans and work designs, just in case.

Let's Get Specific
Of course, you want to be sure to do all of the things we've known for years to defend your employees from heat stress. You need to make sure they are getting enough fluids, that the number and duration of their exposures are reduced, and that you're fighting the thermal conditions in the workplace with air conditioners, fans, cooling vests, and newer-technology PPE. You need to be aware of the workplace conditions, the job requirements, and the types of clothing and equipment in use. All of those are basic heat stress prevention measures you can get from a free brochure. However, there are some other things you need to do that you won't find in any brochure.

When you finish reading this article, get up from your desk and walk around your workplace or factory. Be a spy for a little while. See who is outside smoking at the break area. See who is red-faced from a weekend on the golf course or at the beach. Take a look at the people who would take an XXL or an XXXXXL hazmat suit. Take a look at your injury logs and see whether anyone's name continues to pop up. Take a look at absenteeism records and see who keeps missing Mondays. However, don't write down names, make lists, or compile statistics about individual workers. That would definitely be politically incorrect and possibly even illegal.

Then, go back to your office and do some thinking. Review your procedures, your task-oriented work times, and your PPE. Use the information you've just collected to help you define the standards, procedures, and methods that are right for your workplace. Figure out how to protect your smokers, your alcoholics, and your drug users. Create plans and procedures to allow for your sedentary, your elderly, and your unfit. Obtain PPE for your sunburned, your dehydrated, and your obese. Now, figure that many of these people will fall into more than one category I've mentioned, and adjust your recipe for success accordingly.

You will find that modifying Work Tolerance Times, providing portable hydration or cooling solutions, and changing the rest periods and job tasks may result in whining from some of your line managers and supervisors. It may be met with resistance from management due to productivity concerns. It may be fought by workers who resist change and don't like to wear PPE. But those things are the substance of your job in the first place. If you can't take the heat, you'd better get out of the kitchen.

This article appeared in the March 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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