Coping with the Heat
Providing adequate amounts of cool, potable water for employees and encouraging them to drink water frequently is another recommended practice—a recommendation so important that it is required by the California heat illness prevention regulation.
We know that many people are exposed to heat from working outdoors. Farm workers, law enforcement personnel, construction workers, landscaping workers, oil & gas and refinery workers, emergency responders, and many others can be at risk of serious heat illnesses. But indoor work also can post heat dangers, and workers and supervisors should be prepared for them in locations such as commercial kitchens, laundries, and warehouses.
Heat-related illnesses are clearly preventable. You and your workers can avoid them by understanding and recognizing the symptoms of these illnesses and by being aware of environmental factors that can put employees at risk.
Heat stroke is the most dangerous health ailment from working in hot environments. The body's temperature regulatory system fails and sweating becomes inadequate. Body temperature may be 105 degrees Fahrenheit or even higher, and the person’s skin will be hot and dry. He or she may be confused and can experience convulsions or become unconscious. Prompt and appropriate treatment is essential.
Heat exhaustion happens when someone loses a large amount of fluid by sweating. He still sweats but also may be fatigued, giddy, or nauseous. His skin is clammy and moist, his body temperature normal or slightly elevated. The treatment for heat exhaustion is to have the individual rest in a cool place and drink plenty of liquids.
Heat cramps are muscle spasms felt by a worker who sweats profusely and drinks large quantities of water but does not adequately replace salt loss.
Heat rash can occur in hot and humid environments where sweat is not easily removed from the surface of the skin by evaporation and the skin remains moist most of the time. A skin rash results because the sweat ducts become plugged.
Recommendations for Preventing Heat Illnesses
NIOSH, always a good source for guidance about worker protections, has recommendations for preventing heat stress. They begin with controlling it through engineering and work practice controls such as increased air flow and the use of reflective or heat-absorbing shielding or barriers.
Work practices to utilize include limiting employees' time in the heat or increasing their recovery time in a cool environment, reducing the metabolic demands of the job, increasing the number of workers assigned per task, training supervisors and workers alike about heat stress, implementing a buddy system so workers observe one another for signs of heat illness, and requiring workers to conduct self-monitoring.
Providing adequate amounts of cool, potable water for the employees and encouraging them to drink water frequently is another recommended practice—a recommendation so important that it is required by the California heat illness prevention regulation. Amendments to the regulation took effect in May 2015, and Cal/OSHA, part of the state/s Department of Industrial Relations, issued guidance about the changes.1
The revised regulations say that employees "shall have access to potable drinking water . . . including but not limited to the requirements that it be fresh, pure, suitably cool, and provided to employees free of charge. The water shall be located as close as practicable to the areas where employees are working."
Employee and Supervisor Training
The California regulation also requires employers to train all employees and supervisors about heat illness prevention, to provide enough fresh water so employees can drink at least one quart per hour and to encourage them to do so, to provide access to shade and encourage workers to rest in the shade, and to develop and implement written procedures for complying with the regulation.
Echoing this, NIOSH recommends that workers be trained before hot outdoor work begins and according to specific conditions of the work site. They should be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illnesses and how to administer first aid, and they should be trained on proper care and use of heat-protective clothing and equipment and about the added heat load caused by exertion, apparel, and PPE.
Supervisors should be trained, according to NIOSH, on:
- How to implement appropriate acclimatization
- What procedures to follow when a worker has symptoms consistent with heat-related illness, including emergency response procedures
- How to monitor weather reports
- How to respond to hot weather advisories
- How to monitor and encourage adequate fluid intake and rest breaks
Acclimatizing New and Seasoned Workers
The agency's recommendations for acclimatization say it should be accomplished before the new employees are exposed: "Employers should ensure that workers are acclimatized before they work in a hot environment. Gradually increase workers' time in hot conditions over 7 to 14 days."
New workers should not be scheduled for more than 20 percent of their work in the heat on the first day, and that should increase by no more than 20 percent on each subsequent day, according to the recommendations. Workers with previous experience should be scheduled for no more than 50 percent of their usual duration of work in the heat on day one, 60 percent on day two, 80 percent on day three, and 100 percent on day four.
Supervisors should closely monitor new employees for the first 14 days or until they're fully acclimatized, NIOSH recommends.
Many authorities say employers should schedule their most difficult tasks so they are done during cooler times of day. If the work is being done indoors, use fans, air conditioning, and exhaust ventilation to increase air flow. Personal cooling devices such as vests and bandannas can be useful.
How to Aid a Sick Employee
Water, rest, and shade are keys to preventing serious heat illnesses.
OSHA's Quick Card about heat illness prevention recommends taking these actions when a worker is ill from the heat:
1. Call a supervisor for help or call 911 if a supervisor isn’t available.
2. Have someone stay with the employee until help arrives.
3. Move him or her to a cooler/shaded area.
4. Remove the worker’s outer clothing.
5. Fan and mist the person with water and apply ice bags or ice towels.
6. Provide cool drinking water, if the individual is able to drink.