Keeping Workers Safe from Heat-Related Illnesses & Injuries

Keeping Workers Safe from Heat-Related Illnesses & Injuries

Employers can no longer afford to not consider high heat hazards.

The requirements and standards for helping to keep workers safe in hot environments are, well, heating up. This includes team members who must work outside in the sun. Of course, the health and safety of workers has been a chief concern for businesses for quite some time. Even so, the OSHA has started ramping up efforts to increase legislation and standards to ensure worker safety in hot environments by issuing an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM). It's doing this in concert with the current administration's interagency efforts. 

A September 20, 2021, statement on Whitehouse.gov titled “FACT SHEET: Biden Administration Mobilizes to Protect Workers and Communities from Extreme Heat,confirmed this: "New initiatives at OSHA and across agencies will enhance workplace safety, build local resilience, and address disproportionate heat impacts." 

"The United States experienced a dangerously hot summer this year, breaking records last set during the Dust Bowl. The climate crisis is making heat waves more intense and frequent – endangering workers and communities. During the June 2021 heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, states reported hundreds of excess deaths and thousands of emergency room visits for heat-related illness,” an excerpt from the factsheet explained. “Recognizing the seriousness of this threat, the Biden Administration is taking immediate action on heat hazards to protect workers and communities as part of a broader commitment to workplace safety, climate resilience, and environmental justice. The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Agriculture; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are announcing a set of actions that will reduce heat-related illness, protect public health, and support the economy." 

Although the interagency taskforce will look at initiatives for both workplace and community extreme heat-related situations and scenarios, here are some of the plans that relate directly to the development of OSHA workplace heat standards and increasing enforcement. 

  • Launching a rulemaking process to develop a workplace heat standard 
  • Implementing an enforcement initiative on heat-related hazards 
  • Developing a National Emphasis Program on heat inspections 
  • Forming a heat work group to engage stakeholders and inform ongoing efforts 

Extreme heat is serious business and it can have dangerous consequences, particularly in the workplace during outdoor jobs such as construction, working at height, and oil and gas. In fact, in its ANPRM, OSHA cites that there have been more than 31,000 estimated work-related heat injuries involving days away from work between 2011 and 2019.

The Factors Contributing to Outdoor Heat-Related Illnesses 

There are a few of the occupational factors that contribute to heat illnesses workers may experience. These include: 

Trouble cooling down. High temperatures combined with high humidity don't allow the body to get rid of built-up internal temperatures. 

Low fluid consumption. However, consuming the wrong fluids can also lead to heat illness. For example, drinks containing alcohol or caffeine are actually diuretic, draining the fluids instead of replenishing them. 

No access to shade. Working directly in the sun with no available shade. Tents can help alleviate this problem. 

Decreased air circulation. Working in areas with limited air circulation allows heat to build up. If there isn't a chance for wind or a breeze, consider installing fans. 

Maximum effort. Hard physical exertion under direct sun contributes to exhaustion and potential heat illnesses. 

Too many layers. Unfortunately, the protective clothing and equipment that may be necessary in certain circumstances can contribute to heat stress. More frequent breaks where workers can doff these items may be needed. Consider PPE that's designed specifically for sun exposure. 

However, understanding the factors that contribute to heat related illnesses isn't enough. It is also important to know the signs of the four common heat illnesses and how to treat them. 

The Four Types of Heat-Related Illnesses 

Heat stroke: The body temperature rises to critical levels of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The worker exhibits the signs of heat stroke, including confusion, loss of consciousness and possibly seizures. Sweating, the body's main temperature regulation system, ceases. Make no mistake, this is a life-threatening situation! Call 911 immediately and get medical help. 

Heat exhaustion: Unlike heat stroke, the worker will be sweating heavily, with a body temp of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Other signs are weakness, irritability, confusion and heavy thirst, along with nausea, dizziness and a headache. 

Heat cramps: Caused by the loss of body salts and fluids, usually the result of heavy sweating. Drinking water or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement drinks (sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes helps alleviate the symptoms. While not immediately life-threatening, a cramp at the wrong time can be disastrous. Think climbing a ladder. Definitely not a good time to cramp up. 

Heat rashes: They show up as a small red cluster of pimples or blisters. Any place there's skin-on-skin contact or loose or tight damp clothing is present, rashes can develop.  

What Employers Should Do to Help Mitigate Heat Related Illnesses 

Some employers may already have taken steps to protect workers who work in the sun or other hot environments. One of the key steps now is to make sure it's documented properly. Remember, OSHA is getting ready to make this a regulation or mandate. That means there will be mandatory paperwork involved. 

OSHA already has instructions to prevent and mitigate heat-related illnesses. While most are fairly common sense, let's outline a few. Of course, it all begins with having a heat illness prevention plan created or in the works. You can be certain it will be a requirement in the future. 

Creation of the plan means that someone should be in charge of developing the plan and overseeing the execution of it. Educating your workers and supervisors will be an important part of the plan. Make sure they know the danger signs of heat-related illnesses, they know the symptoms and they are encouraged to watch out for their coworkers.  

Daily jobsite supervision and monitoring are important. A set of eyes looking specifically for heat stress problems is valuable. 

Other questions and factors to be considered are: 

  • How are you going to handle new hires and temp workers who are not yet acclimatized to the heat? 
  • Do you have the medical capability to handle or respond to these illnesses? 
  • Do you have the proper protocols in place to get outside medical assistance if needed? 
  • Have you considered engineering controls and best work practices that could mitigate risk? 
  • Are you monitoring National Weather Service bulletins and what are your steps in the event of a heat advisory or warning? 
  • If the heat index determines that work should be paused or cancelled, do you have documentation in place to show your responsibilities? 

Here's something else to think about: We are coming off the cooler winter weather and heading toward a hot season. Some personal protective equipment (PPE) used during the winter may seem too uncomfortable to use during the heat of summer. While some bulky coats and such can be ditched for cooler alternatives, many PPE items cannot. They're still necessary for worker protection in certain circumstances. 

Hard hats, for example, must still be worn in many applications no matter how hot they feel to the worker. However, new products are available that can keep the worker's head cooler while still keeping them protected. For example, hard hats that feature thermal barrier technology can keep the interior of a hard hat up to 20 degrees cooler in sunny conditions. Additional PPE including sunshades, sun shields and cooling neck wraps can also help maintain worker comfort and safety in sunny conditions. 

Maintaining worker safety and keeping up with OSHA regulations may mean providing seasonally appropriate PPE for hot, sunny conditions. In the long run, won’t those measures be worth it? 

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

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