Historically High Heat: How Extreme Temperatures Influence Safety Programs

Historically High Heat: How Extreme Temperatures Influence Safety Programs

Extreme heat is not something to be ignored.

Have you ever been in an environment that was so hot that you felt like basic functioning would take tremendous effort? Extreme heat can envelop you, enclosing you in an uncomfortable case that impacts your ability to move, to breathe and even to see if you are in it long enough.  

This is a scenario that millions of workers must face when they go to work in the hot summer months and the heat isn’t cooling down. In fact, research shows that the temperatures in the United States will only continue to go up over the next decade after reaching a historic high in 2021. 

It’s Heating Up 

According to the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, 2021 had the warmest meteorological summer (June-August) on record with an average temperature of 74.01 degrees Fahrenheit. This record had been previously set for 85 years by the year 1936 when the average temperature of the summer was 74.00 degrees Fahrenheit.  

The 1930s are known for their scorching temperatures as dust storms blew across the Great Plains and many states recorded some of their highest temperatures. Many studies have since attributed the extreme heat of the 1930s to the naturally occurring drought which triggered a warm sea surface in the North Atlantic. The heat was only made worse by the bare, over-plowed soil of the Great Plains. 

Research shows that land management practices had lessened the possibility of another 1930s-like decade of extreme heat, especially in the “Corn Belt,” or Central United States where fertile lands produce 10 billion bushels of corn each year. The region has since seen lower temperatures and rainfall has increased nearly 35 percent.3

Despite the changes of regional weather, the country has now seen a summer just a shade hotter than that desperate Dust Bowl summer of ‘36. In fact, five states had their hottest summers on record, these include California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. Twenty-one other states had summer temperatures that ranked in the top ten for their state. 

The year 2021 saw one of the most horrifically brutal heat waves across Washington and Oregon. Temps soared to a blistering 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Seattle and 116 degrees in Portland on June 28. Early estimates showed that hundreds of people may have died as a result of the extreme temperatures.

These extreme weather temperatures are not going away any time soon, according to meteorologists. Researchers at Severe Weather Europe predict that North America will see a hotter-than-normal summer in 2022, especially in the southern states as it is anticipated they will see a drier season causing concern for severe droughts. 

While some researchers are predicting a more rain-filled summer than normal, the temperatures will continue to heat up across the country causing serious concern for employees who spend most of their time outside.

Vulnerable Outdoor Workers 

Some of the most important occupations involve outdoor work. From the agriculture industry to construction industry, millions of employees must brave the impact of weather while on the job. These outdoor workers tend to be the most vulnerable to the adverse health effects of extreme temperatures.  

There is a lot that can go wrong if an employee is outside in extreme heat for too long with no breaks, hydration or ability to check in with others about their physical health. If left in extreme heat for an extended amount of time, workers can find themselves suffering from a heat-related illness, which is a condition in which the body is unable to successfully cool itself down resulting in elevated core body temperature.  

Heat-related illness includes many conditions that can affect the human body, most treatable if caught in their early stages. These include heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and—worst of all—heat stroke. Researchers have also linked chronic exposure to extreme heat to more dangerous health outcomes such as heart, kidney and liver damage.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows between the years of 2011 and 2019, 344 workers have lost their lives due to environmental heat exposure. Of those deaths, 41.9 percent died from heat exposure while they were engaged in construction, repair or cleaning and 54 percent died while conducting materials handling operations. Charts from BLS show that deaths stemming from heat exposure are only on the rise and risks associated with rising temperatures must be mitigated immediately.  

Is Anything Being Done? 

As of right now, there are no federal regulations or standards that specifically set safe guidelines for work in extreme temperatures. OSHA typically depends on its catch-all law, or the General Duty Clause, to cite employers for failing to protect their workers from high heat environments.  

Some State OSHA plans, such as California and Washington, have created standards promulgate safe working conditions for outdoor workers, but much of the country that is regulated by OSHA had no formal rules for outdoor work.  

In an effort to address the increasing temperatures and fatalities related to extreme heat, OSHA announced on October 27, 2021 that it was publishing an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings. The Agency said that a standard specific to heat-related injury and illness prevention would more clearly set forth employer obligations and the measure necessary to effectively protect employees from hazardous heat.  

According to the ANPRM, OSHA is looking into several topics of interest for the new standard. These include just a few of the following: 

  • Occupational illnesses, injuries and fatalities due to hazardous heat, including their under reporting and magnitude across geographic regions or among various industries, occupations, job tasks or businesses of various sizes  
  • Determinants of hazardous occupational heat exposure and heat-related illness in the work place  
  • Structure of work and work arrangements affected by hazardous heat 
  • Existing efforts on heat illness prevention, including by OSHA, states, employers or other industry associations  
  • Heat illness prevention plans and programs 
  • Engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment 
  • Planning and responding to heat illness emergencies  
  • Worker training and engagement 

While it is entirely possible to try to predict what OSHA will include in a possible standard to reduce heat-related illnesses and injuries, it is not worth waiting to find out what the guidelines are before making a move to protect your employees from extreme heat. There are many things that you can start to incorporate now, before a standard has been published. 

Safety in Extreme Heat Starts Now 

It is never too late to start planning for work under the stare of the hot summer sun. Even in the months where the breeze is cool and the temperatures are pleasant, there are things you can be doing as a safety professional to prepare the workforce for the summer heat—including training workers on the signs of heat-related illnesses. 

Training workers to understand and be aware of what happens in the body when it is exposed to extreme heat is one of the most important elements of a heat safety plan. When workers know what signs to look for when working in high heat, they can assess their own physical health for early signs of heat-related illnesses, but also look for signs in their co-workers as well. 

Symptoms to look for include dry skin, high body temperature, red skin or rash, rapid pulse, dizziness and confusion. Other symptoms that may be visible to co-workers are slurred speech or an unsteady gait.  

Ensure that all workers understand their recommended fluid intake to remain hydrated. OSHA recommends each worker consume at least four 8-ounce cups of water per hour when working in extreme heat, especially when the work is labor intensive. Educate workers on fluids that may actively dehydrate their bodies, such as coffee, tea and sodas. Common sports and energy drinks may feel like they are helping workers get through their shifts, but an excessive amount of sugar can also play a part in dehydrating workers.  

Another important part of any heat safety plan is incorporating rest into the work day. Outdoor workers need to take the time to slow, and cool down during their shifts in elevated temperatures. Employers should try to avoid scheduling work during peak heat hours as well as spread the work out over a longer period of time with more workers in rotation throughout the day. Creating a schedule where workers get an adequate amount of rest throughout the day will also help with new employees coming into the fold who need an increased amount of time to acclimate to the harsh environment.  

Getting rest in is a great start, but employers must be mindful of where workers are resting. Rest zones should be set up in places that offer shade from direct sunlight when possible. Supervisors should look for areas with thick foliage above or provide canopies or tents for employees to rest under. Workers should be equipped with wide-brimmed hats and other PPE that can help to keep the direct sunlight off their bodies while working.  

Remember, however, if employees are required to wear specific PPE on the job, make sure these garments do not hinder the employee's ability to cool down. Heavy, stiff and unbreathable fabric make it even hotter for workers in an already unbearable climate and can lead to symptoms of heat-related illnesses faster than normal. 

The Future 

The fact of the matter is the summers are not getting any cooler. There may be some breezier days here and there, but for the most part, all employers who have workers in outdoor or high heat indoor environments must take the time—now—to create comprehensive, effective heat safety plans with their employees in mind.  

Heat-related illnesses and injuries are entirely preventable. Make the promise to your employees that you will work to ensure their safety—regardless of temperature—today. 

Publisher's Note: The following appeared alongside this article as a sidebar in the OH&S Magazine June 2021 issue.  

How to Use the Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer

Heat affects thousands of workers every year. With rising temperatures, knowing how to keep workers safe is essential. There are many factors when it comes to weather, like humidity, wind and temperature, each affecting workers differently. 

One way to keep workers safe from heat is to use a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT). WBGT uses “temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover” to determine heat stress. This system has been used for years by the United States military, student athletic organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine, and OSHA. 

WBGT can be measured by using a special device with three thermometers. One reads the humidity, another the “solar factor” and the third the “ambient temperature.” OSHA recommends using this device for environmental heat. If you don’t have access to a device, you can use a calculator, like the one on OSHA’s website. However, these only provide estimates. 

A reading or estimate provides insight to actions you can take to keep your workers safe. Weather.gov has a chart of suggested actions and impact prevention depending on the reading. It gives both an effect and a precautionary action to take when working or exercising outside. For example, for a WBGT of 80 to 85 degree Fahrenheit, the chart explains that “working or exercising in direct sunlight will stress your body after 45 minutes.” It recommends taking “at least 15 minutes of breaks each hour.”  

The advantage of using WBGT over heat index is that it measures more environmental factors. Heat index only measures two parameters, temperature and humidity, for shady areas. 

WBGT can provide employers with a more detailed understanding of the weather conditions to keep workers safe and healthy. For more information on WBGT, visit OSHA.gov.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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