The Many Costs of Neglecting Your Heat Safety Plan
It’s easy to think of heat stress as causing cramps, vomiting and even fainting. However, a severe heat illness like heat stroke can forever change or end a person’s life.
- By M.B. Sutherland
- Mar 01, 2022
We often call heat stress a slow-moving injury in that it happens over a period of time, often without the sufferer being aware that they are in trouble. Heat illness is far more common than most people know, with eleven workers seriously injured or even dying from heat stress each and every day. This is particularly tragic given that it’s an injury that’s 100 percent preventable with the right preparation and knowledge.
While most workplaces know that they need to provide the big three – rest, shade and hydration – many don’t realize that those can fall short in especially hot, humid or heavy work conditions. It is crucial for your workers, your safety program and for your company’s bottom line to go beyond the basics to develop a comprehensive heat safety plan.
Those eleven daily injuries translate to thousands of people every year, and with an average price tag of $53,589 for each incident, it adds up to millions of dollars, not including any additional wrongful death lawsuits that may be filed or other judgements that may be leveled against your company. Those are the monetary costs, which are significant. But there are other, even more serious costs as well.
Costs to Worker Health & Well-Being
It is easy to think of heat stress as causing cramps, vomiting and even fainting. However, a severe heat illness like heat stroke can forever change or end a person’s life.
Organ Damage. If your body temperature gets high enough to cause a heat stroke, important systems begin to suffer irreparable damage. That can mean brain damage, heart, liver or kidney damage, or even compromised muscle tissue. Organs can swell to the point of injury or be damaged enough to require dialysis or a kidney transplant. It doesn’t happen only to those with underlying conditions, it can happen to healthy workers too.
Compromised Heat Tolerance. Heat Tolerance is the amount of heat your body can endure without becoming ill – including how much time you can spend in the heat. Many heat stroke survivors find that their body overheats faster than it did before their illness. Their body may not be able to sweat as efficiently, hampering its ability to cool down in hot conditions and they show signs of heat illness sooner and in cooler temperatures than before. This may mean they need to drop out of the labor workforce entirely.
Time-Sensitive Damage. When someone suffers a heat stroke, you have just 30 minutes to prevent long-term damage, making it crucial to bring their body temperature down as quickly as possible. Practice with your teams, assigning someone to call 911 while others implement emergency cooling procedures.
Soft Costs in Productivity & Poor Performance
The Atlantic Council’s Washington D.C.-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center estimates that the United States could lose approximately $100 billion a year in productivity due to heat. They predict that number could double by 2030 and may reach as high as $500 billion by 2050. At a 2021 Webinar discussing the many facets of working in the heat, Chris Valetta Co-Founder and President of cooling textile manufacturer MISSION explained that many pro-athletes are beginning to understand the effect that body temperature has on performance. According to Valetta, research groups like the Korey Stringer Institute have found that “if you keep yourself cooler, not only are you safer, but you have a significant performance improvement.” A report by Bongers, et. al. in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that cooling before and during exertion enhanced performance by about 6 percent. So how much poorer is performance if you neglect cooling during exertion?
This concept is applicable to the industrial realm as we ask our workers to do their jobs in hotter conditions. You may not just have workers out sick due to heat illness or workers out permanently after becoming disabled. You almost certainly also have healthy workers who may be coping in the heat but who are working more slowly and less efficiently because they are overheated. While all of these consequences are dire, the good news is that none of them has to happen!
8 Steps to Help Prevent Heat Illness on the Job
The National Heat Safety Coalition (NHSC) was founded by experts in heat stress, cooling textiles and industrial safety. Recently, a group sponsored by the NHSC developed a consensus document3 outlining eight simple steps to keep workers safe in hot working conditions.
Heat Hygiene. Heat hygiene can take many different forms, from providing wellness assessments for your workers to inform them about their own particular risk factors, to simply educating your teams about heat illness in general. That means knowing the signs, symptoms, risks, and emergency actions to take. It should also include day-to-day or even hour-to-hour communications about working temperatures on the jobsite and the associated risk factors. This may involve designating workers or supervisors to monitor your teams’ well-being during their shift or at least creating a buddy system where workers keep an eye on each other to look for signs of heat stress.
Hydration. Everyone knows it’s important to provide water. But it’s crucial for this step to include a policy of providing icy-cold water and/or electrolyte replacing beverages that are in close proximity to every worker. Workers won’t drink enough if the water is warm and unpalatable, and they tend to put off rehydration if they have to walk too far to get it.
Heat Acclimatization. OSHA estimates that over seventy percent of heat-related deaths happen in a worker’s first week on the job and almost fifty percent on the very first day. The culprit here is lack of heat acclimatization. When your jobsite or facility are hot, new workers or workers returning from an extended absence should gradually increase exposure to the work conditions, ideally over a 5–7-day time period. So they might work just an hour or two in the heat on day one, a little longer on day two, etc. This allows their bodies to develop defenses against the heat like increased sweating and a lower heart rate.
Environmental Monitoring. The weather report tells you if it is a good day for a picnic - it does not tell you how hot it will be on your job site! The gold standard in keeping workers safe is the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) monitor. These small but powerful devices measure the temperature, humidity, sun exposure, and wind in an area. It’s important to measure more than just one area of the job since one place might be far hotter than another if it’s in direct sun, lacks airflow, or has hot machinery running.
Physiological Monitoring. While we don’t yet have wearable monitors that can reliably say “you are now at risk of heat illness” we do have monitors that can alert the wearer of risk factors like high heart rate or high skin temperature. These can be useful as an additional tool in your arsenal to keep a close watch on worker conditions.
Body Cooling Stations. Proof that some of the old ways still work, body cooling stations are always a good idea on a hot jobsite. Designating areas like air-conditioned portable bathroom trailers, cooling tents, shaded areas, or air-conditioned lunchrooms – really anywhere with a cooler temperature and a place for workers to rest and cool down, are an important part of keeping people safe. Coolers full of ice and towels are a smart addition as they allow workers to spend some time immersing themselves in lower temperatures while they get off their feet and recover.
Cooling PPE. Rest breaks, hydration and shade are important mitigation factors in the heat, but if conditions are hot enough, these won’t be enough to keep workers from overheating. You can help the situation by choosing the lightest PPE available that still provides protection, but you can also add garments that are specially designed to lower the skin temperature. New technologies in cooling garments have been developed in the last few years that don’t rely on slimy-feeling chemicals or ice packs.
Emergency Preparations. Every person has different risk factors, and temperatures on a job site can rise quickly. So even with all the preparation above, it is still possible you will have a worker overheat. That means you need to plan ahead and have measures in place to rescue a worker in distress. Ideally, you should have a cold-water immersion tub on site that allows you to place a heat stressed worker into ice water to bring their body temperature down as quickly as possible. If this isn’t possible on your jobsite, those coolers full of ice water and towels you put in your cooling tents can serve as an alternative. Rescuers can apply cold towels and ice to an overheated worker’s body and swap out new cold towels as they become warm. Be sure that everyone on the job site understands that you have roughly 30 minutes to prevent long-term complications and damage. Ironically, many people experience physical damage on the ambulance ride to the hospital if they haven’t been cooled thoroughly before being transported. The rule to Cool First, Transport Second can save lives and long-term health.
The eight steps above are simple and economical. Given the enormous costs of failing to follow them, neglecting your heat safety plan just doesn’t make sense. Save your time, save your money and save your workers by implementing the 8-steps to a quality heat safety plan!
This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.