Best Practices to Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses Amid COVID-19
With COVID-19 restrictions and 2020 projected to be one of the hottest years on record, it’s important for employers, managers and workers to keep heat stress safety top of mind.
- By David Perecman
- Aug 24, 2020
Each year, hundreds of workers suffer the effects of heat stress due to exposure to hot, humid work environments. Such conditions can lead to serious, sometimes fatal, illnesses and may contribute to other on-the-job injuries. Laborers who work outdoors, including construction, agriculture and landscaping workers, among others, are at an increased risk of heat-related workplace injuries. As temperatures rise during the summer months, so does the likelihood of heat stress on the job.
In recent months, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought new risks and uncertainty to the work environment. Under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), workers are advised to keep 6 feet from one another and use masks when social distance requirements cannot be met. However, these COVID-19 safety procedures may limit the ability to detect signs of heat stress amongst co-workers, so it’s important for employers and site managers to account for these conditions in heat safety procedures. With COVID-19 restrictions and 2020 projected to be one of the hottest years on record, it’s important for employers, managers and workers to keep heat stress safety top of mind.
Heat Stress 101
The most common heat-related illnesses include heat stroke, heat rashes, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion. A recent study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine revealed that between 1992 and 2016, more than one-third of all U.S. occupational deaths from heat exposure were construction workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 370 construction workers required days away from work to recover, and 11 died from environmental heat exposure in 2018.
In addition to high temperatures, construction workers face specific occupational hazards that contribute to a higher risk of heat-related injuries. This includes labor-intensive work that causes the body to generate excessive heat, performing jobs outdoors or in non-climate-controlled spaces, while in the presence of multiple heat sources, including tools, machinery, work-specific personal protective equipment (PPE) and non-breathable clothing requirements.
According to the CDC, common symptoms of heat-related illnesses include impaired thinking, dizziness, heavy sweating, slippery hands, fatigue, elevated heart rate and cramping. Symptoms experienced as a result of heat stress can lead to further occupational hazards, which are more likely to occur when a worker is exhausted or impaired.
How Wearing a Mask Can Contribute to Heat-Related Illnesses
In response to COVID-19, the CDC recommended all workers wear face masks, especially when they are unable to maintain the required social distance space. However, the CDC also advises that mask use can make it more difficult to detect heat stress with the usual “buddy system” method, a protocol often used on construction sites to monitor for heat-related illnesses and injuries amongst co-workers. This is especially concerning throughout the construction industry, where N95 masks are commonly used to protect against occupational hazards.
Some studies suggest that wearing a face mask — including the N95 — may negatively impacts an individual’s heart rate and thermoregulation and can magnify the risks of heat injuries by raising body temperature and making it seem warmer and difficult to breathe.
Given the added heat-related complications of wearing a face covering with the continuing coronavirus pandemic, every person in a workplace should be trained and familiar with best practices for identifying, preventing and responding to heat illness.
Worker Heat Safety Tips Amid COVID-19
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a heat illness prevention plan can help prevent injuries and may save lives on the job—no matter your field. To lower the risk of illness and injury, employers and site managers should maintain typical standard procedures and encourage workers to pace themselves, understand their limits and take frequent breaks in the shade or indoors. Workers should also wear sun protection such as SPF 30+ sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats to prevent sunburn and wear light-colored clothing and provided proper PPE when handling equipment and tools. In addition to staying hydrated, workers are advised to avoid dehydrating beverages, including coffee, tea and soda.
The CDC recommends that outdoor workers prioritize the use of masks when in close quarters with other people, such as during shift meetings, and may remove masks when social distancing is maintained.
Employers should also provide first aid capabilities and work to create an optimally safe work environment by identifying and controlling heat hazards. OSHA requires employers to provide safe working conditions for their employees, and this should include creating an illness prevention plan with training and supervision to help lower the risk of heat-related injury and illness.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, added safety precautions must be incorporated into heat illness prevention practices. For example, although it is vital that employees stay hydrated, they should never share water bottles as it could further spread the virus. Likewise, though employees must take regular breaks to avoid overexertion in high heat, they should maintain social distancing protocols when doing so.
As it is harder to spot the signs of heat stress when co-workers have their faces covered, an alternative version of the “buddy system” should be implemented. Workers should verbally communicate with one another about their conditions throughout the day, verbally assessing signs of overheat exposure in place of visual cues. In addition, CDC guidelines should be closely monitored for updates.
In Case of Injury
If a worker sustains a heat-related injury on the job, immediately take steps to help cool them down and seek medical attention. After the worker has received care, they should inform their supervisor of the injury and file an accident report and workers’ compensation claim.
OSHA requires employers to report serious injuries and employees are also able to report their injury directly. After a report has been filed, OSHA may initiate an inspection of the workplace. If a worker’s injury is the result of mismanagement of heat-related risks, a worker may have the right to explore their options for recovering losses stemming from the occupational disease or injury. In many states, like New York, workers usually cannot sue their employers to recover financial damages for on-the-job accidents, but they can file a workers’ compensation claim to recover their losses. If the injury or disease occurs as a result of a third-party’s negligence, outside of an employer, the worker may wish to consider filing a personal injury lawsuit. In these instances, workers may benefit from seeking the guidance of an experienced personal injury lawyer who can review the details of their matter and advise them on their legal rights and remedies.
This period is unprecedented. Not only is it projected to be one of the hottest years on record, but with the addition of COVID-19 safety precautions, many workplace heat-related illness and injury risks could increase. With the proper awareness and safety procedures in place, many workplace heat-related incidents could be prevented. Thus, employers, worksite managers, and employees need to work together to create the best possible on-the-job work conditions for optimal safety.