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5 Tips to Keep Workers Safe This Summer
The summer is a great time to schedule vacations, show off your barbecuing prowess and enjoy a day on the beach.
But the summer can also complicate life for people working outdoors, whether by increasing the chances of heat-related illnesses or by forcing workers to fend off virulent pests like ticks and mosquitoes.
Read on for five best practices to beat the heat and keep your worksite and employees safe this summer.
1. Provide Ample Shade and Water as Temperatures Rise Outside
During the summer months, people are at a much greater risk of experiencing heat exhaustion or heat stroke. And these aren’t minor illnesses—heat stroke can compromise and even kill parts of the central nervous system.
The ubiquity of this issue hasn’t fully translated to OSHA ordinances, though. In fact, as of this writing, there is no permanent OSHA standard when it comes to handling environmental heat. There is currently a National Emphasis Program in effect for outdoor and indoor heat-related hazards, but it only lasts for three years after implementation, which was on April 8, 2022.
Without a permanent standard, OSHA officers can’t issue citations for specific hazards related to heat, but there is a slight workaround. OSHA officers can cite dangerous work conditions using the general duty clause. What might lead to a citation?
- Not providing adequate shade at your worksite.
- Failing to offer—or enforce—mandatory breaks.
- Not providing enough potable water at your worksite.
Beyond these concrete actions, managers are also tasked with a somewhat intangible duty: monitoring their team’s response to the heat.
If an employee has been working in a hotter region of the country for an extended period of time, there’s a pretty good chance they’ve acclimated to the environment. But if an employee either recently moved to an area or just started working in the industry, this heat acclimation might take longer.
It’s important that your team feels comfortable expressing themselves when they’re uncomfortable. In the summer, prioritizing employee safety largely comes from your—and your employees’—ability to recognize symptoms of heat illnesses.
2. Don’t Forget to Monitor Temperatures Indoors
Many of the considerations that benefit employees in outdoor environments (potable water, breaks, etc.) also benefit them when working indoors, but there’s a key difference.
When working outdoors, every person on your worksite experiences the same weather. If temperatures rise to dangerous levels, everyone knows and can respond accordingly. Working indoors is a whole different ball game, especially if your worksite spans multiple floors.
For example, let’s say an employee works for a logistics and packing company. The warehouse has two floors—one at ground level and another directly above it. The ground floor has large vaulted ceilings and plenty of box fans to circulate the air. It’s warmer in the summer, but the temperature is closely monitored.
The second floor is another story. It’s much smaller. There’s no ventilation aside from the entrance and exit. Because heat rises, the temperature on this floor is about 25 degrees hotter than it is on the main floor. What’s worse, there doesn’t seem to be any awareness of this issue. Employees who work on the second floor are treated the same as those working on the main floor.
One day, an employee working on the second floor faints from heat exhaustion and is taken to the hospital. An OSHA officer arrives and writes a citation under the general duty clause. The worksite is deemed unsafe.
In this case, one solution might be to install an air conditioning unit on the second floor. In other cases, like metal working facilities, extreme heat is part of the job. That’s why providing water, breaks, shade and other resources such as cooling towels is crucial. It’s rare that you can control the environment, but you can control how you and your team handle it.
3. Offer Protection from Pests
If you’re working outdoors, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter pests during the summer, whether that’s insects, rodents, snakes or some other animal. Fortunately, OSHA has various guidelines on pest prevention.
In the case of spiders, ticks and mosquitoes, it’s best to:
- Wear long pants, socks and long-sleeved shirts to protect against stinging and biting.
- Apply repellant with DEET directly to the hand and body for protection.
- Spray clothing with repellents containing DEET or permethrin. (Important reminder: If using a repellant that contains permethrin, do not apply it directly to exposed skin.)
- Treat bites and stings using over-the-counter products that relieve pain and reduce the risk of infection.
- Wear light-colored clothes to see ticks more easily.
- Dump out standing water from used sources (tires, buckets, etc.) to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas.
- Instruct a coworker to inspect your body for ticks before entering indoor areas.
When it comes to other vermin, like snakes or rodents, it’s best to first consider the geography. If landscaping near a marsh, you should be on the lookout for snakes or other reptiles. The same goes for rats or other stray animals if you’re working in a densely wooded area that contains burrows.
Understanding the environmental risks is a crucial first step in protecting yourself from them.
This means if you’re aware certain factors could harm your team while they’re doing their job, it’s your responsibility to provide any and all necessary protection. This protection could range from repellant to bite cream to PPE.
4. Supply and Enforce the Use of PPE
Supplying PPE and training employees on its proper usage is a critical piece of any summer safety plan. Before providing PPE, however, it’s important for you to clearly identify every hazard of your worksite. This hazard identification is part of a PPE program and is essential for ensuring you give the right PPE to your team.
Here’s how this hazard identification might work in practice. Employees are on a construction site doing electrical work. The heat index is 90 degree Fahrenheit, and the wind is kicking up dust.
In response to these potential hazards, you
- Put up several tents for shade.
- Bring coolers filled with bottled water.
- Offer helmets with longer brims to block out the sun.
- Give workers eyeglasses to protect them from any flying debris or dust.
- Provide a full arc flash suit for team members as the electrical work requires the use of Level 4 PPE for arc flash potential.
But you run into a couple of problems. Several team members complain that the glasses fog up too easily in the humidity, and they take them off. One of the electrical workers asks to use only a portion of the arc flash suit because it gets too hot in the sun.
These problems offer you opportunities to accomplish three tasks:
- Reeducate your team on PPE usage—perhaps with a refresher safety course.
- Find PPE alternatives better suited to the heat, such as anti-fog glasses and vented hard hats.
- Increase the number of breaks for employees in the arc flash suits to keep them cool.
5. Deliver Safety Training to New and Inexperienced Hires
The summer might bring hotter temperatures, but it also brings a wave of new potential talent, whether that’s students (high school, trade school, college, etc.) on break or seasonal laborers looking for a job.
This influx of new talent can introduce its fair share of risks, usually stemming from inexperience. For instance, students or recent grads probably don’t possess the industry know-how of leaders on your team.
Adding new employees to your worksite also alters the team dynamic. You’re introducing new personalities to the mix, and you can't know for sure what to expect. Just the maturity difference between new teenage hires and tenured members of your team may be enough to cause some tension. Tack on blistering hot temperatures and tiring work, and it’s no surprise that tempers can flare.
This is why I always advise people to administer workplace violence courses in the summer. It’s important that your team recognizes the danger of engaging in horseplay—or something more serious. It’s also important they know what to do in case a conflict escalates.
This doesn’t just extend to your employees, either. If you work in an area with lots of foot traffic and consumers, it can't hurt to invest time and resources into safety training. Violent crime spikes in the summer months. Although something like active shooter training might seem morbid, there’s no such thing as being too safe—especially when lives are at stake.
Beat the Heat by Training Your Employees on How to Stay Cool
Each of these best practices can be enhanced with one thing: training. The best workforce is an educated workforce, and if a piece of training isn’t on your radar for the summer portion of your compliance calendar, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth looking into.
Your team might not explicitly thank you for investing in the training, but they will respect and value the safety of your worksite. At a time when recruiting and retaining workers grows harder and harder, that respect goes a long way.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.