Five Things Employees Need to Know to Prevent Heat Stress Injuries

Five Things Employees Need to Know to Prevent Heat Stress Injuries

Heat stress illnesses are a recognized and preventable workplace hazard.

From increased hydration and decreased work intervals to cooling shelters and core temperature checks, planning ahead when employees will need to work in extreme heat is essential in reducing risk. Whether planning is seasonal for outdoor workers, or year-round for indoor tasks in hot conditions, the engineering, administrative and other controls that are put in place provide a framework for working safely when the temperature and humidity cause many others to move indoors and jack up the air conditioning.

Heat-related illnesses are a recognized and preventable workplace hazard. In fact, OSHA issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking addressing this issue in October 2021 with the hope of having a final rule in place to protect all workers covered under federal OSHA. Some states already have regulations in place, such as Carolina, Washington and Oregon. In 2022, OSHA has included heat-related illness as one of their national emphasis programs.

Facility plans may be thorough, but like any other health and safety plan, that is no guarantee of effectiveness. To truly help reduce the risk of heat stress injuries and fatalities, the employees who will be performing work duties in extreme conditions need to know what to expect as well as what actions they will need to take should they find themselves, or a co-worker suffering a heat-related illness or injury.

Typically, most employees won’t need to understand or explain what the wet bulb globe temperature is to stay safe. They may also never need to solve a heat balance equation. They do, however, need to be taught about heat stress hazards and how to prevent illness or death when working in extremely hot conditions.

Environmental Factors

For many, the heat index is an initial indicator that heat may be a factor in their daily routines. In a report, the National Weather Service (NWS) identified 20 different elements that can be factored into the heat index. No true equation for the heat index exists because of the number of variables, but two elements that are constant in any heat index equation are air temperature and humidity.

When workers will be working in direct sunlight, and if there is no wind, the heat index broadcast by a local weatherperson may not provide enough protection. Wet bulb globe temperatures, allowances for PPE and adjustments for heavy physical exertion need to be factored in to ensure that work and rest periods are appropriate.

Teaching employees to recognize environmental factors in addition to the air temperature and humidity that contribute to heat stress can help them be more aware of why it may feel much hotter than the thermometer shows. When it is applicable, discuss how hot surfaces, processes that produce heat and steam and even sunlight coming through windows can contribute to high temperatures.

Hydration, Diet and Health

Environmental factors that contribute to heat-related illnesses and injuries can be difficult or impossible to control. In some cases, physiological factors can be as well—especially because employers can’t watch over employees’ actions when they’re off the clock. However, employees can be taught to recognize how their daily dietary choices affect their ability to work in hot conditions.

Proper hydration is a key factor in preventing dehydration and the onset of heat-related illness symptoms. Many symptoms of dehydration (thirst, irritability, confusion, cramping, and headache) mirror the first symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stress and heat stroke.

Avoiding caffeinated, sugary and alcoholic beverages and consuming enough water (at least one cup per hour) can help employees stay on track. Posting urine charts in restrooms and common areas allows each employee to self-evaluate.

For employees who will perform heavy labor tasks for two or more hours a day, drinks with electrolytes may become necessary. Whether it is water or electrolyte drinks, teach employees what will be available to them and where it will be located so that they have ready access to it, before they become thirsty.

Even when employers do all they can to keep employees hydrated, some health factors such as age and underlying health conditions can predispose individuals to heat stress. For example, diabetes, heart disease and obesity can all limit an employee’s ability to work in hot conditions for the same amount of time as a person who does not have any of these health concerns. Recent illness, medications, a prior heat-related illness and alcohol consumption can also increase a person’s susceptibility.

Using the Buddy System

When work and rest schedules are developed for tasks that need to be performed in extremely hot conditions, group employees in teams of at least two people so that no one is alone. When a worker is alone, ego can get in the way of safety. They may stay on the task just a few minutes longer to get the job done, disregarding symptoms until it is too late.

When the same teams work together daily or frequently, symptoms such as confusion, slurred speech, excessive sweating and irritability will be more easily recognized. Often, teammates will recognize symptoms in others before they recognize it in themselves.

As training sessions are scheduled to teach employees the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and injuries, schedule the entire team for the same session. When they learn the symptoms, first aid, work and break schedules and other safety information together, it encourages familiarity with one another that can spurn earlier recognition of heat stress symptoms when they’re working together.

Taking Breaks

Along with co-workers recognizing heat-related symptoms, teammates are also an important factor in ensuring that everyone is taking adequate breaks to allow their core temperature to cool down. Supervisors share in this duty as well. Even when it may seem to be counterproductive to stop instead of finishing a job first, exceeding work/rest schedules by as few as three to five minutes can have serious consequences.

Discuss work and rest schedules as well as any areas that are designated to help cool down during breaks. For some, this may mean air-conditioned rooms or trailers with beverage dispensers. For others, it may be a tent or areas with fans and coolers of beverages. No matter how advanced or humble, make sure that everyone has access to the areas and knows where each one is located.

Breaks are also a good time for supervisors or medical staff members to assess overall health. This can be especially important for workers who are still acclimating, those with existing health conditions or those who are older.

Utilizing Resources

Because heat-related illnesses are a recognized workplace hazard, there are a lot of resources available to help facilities evaluate the specific factors that contribute to heat stress. Chances are good, though, that most employees aren’t going to want to dive into the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) reports and recommendations to determine what they need to do.

Keeping training simple and focusing on things that are actionable provides a good foundation. Supplementing training with resources, such as posters and signs in breakrooms or at jobsites helps to reinforce that learning. For employees who are able to utilize tablets or phones during their workday, NIOSH and OSHA have developed a free heat safety tool app that provides the user with information about the heat index for their area, risk levels and precautions to take. It also provides information on heat stress symptoms as well as first aid.

Preventing heat stress illnesses and deaths doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Having a plan that establishes procedures and training employees to recognize not only the symptoms of heat stress, but also the simple practices that can prevent them will reduce risk. It will also help them to recognize which conditions are in their control so that they can focus on those to help prevent symptoms from developing.  

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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