Prioritizing the Safety and Well-Being of Employee’s Amid Global Climate Conditions
Awareness and training are two key factors in protecting workers from heat-related illnesses.
- By Kate Field
- Sep 12, 2022
Once again, parts of the U.S. have experienced record-breaking temperatures this summer, and it’s clear that instances of extreme weather, including very high temperatures, will become more frequent until we make effective inroads into tackling climate change. Currently, the Paris Agreement is seeking to prevent further temperature rises rather than reduce existing levels; with that in mind, organizations need to consider sustainable interventions to keep workers safe and healthy during adverse weather conditions, including heatwaves, which will only become more frequent.
What’s the Risk?
In some industries, such as mining, foundries, bakeries, catering and laundries, working in hot environments is the norm. At the same time, other workers will be used to seasonal variations in temperature, such as those working in agriculture, horticulture, sports, construction, postal services, research, airports, emergency and defense, wind farms, oil platforms, and the like. But for a large portion of the working population, risks from heat will only be encountered when the weather is unseasonal. For all of these groups, however, a failure to manage heat risks can result in deaths and serious injury and illness.
Temperature and humidity need to be considered. Humidity can increase risk as in high humidity environments, less sweat can evaporate, thus impacting the body’s natural temperature regulation – increasing the chances of heat stress and other heat-induced illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Overlapping with heat stress is dehydration. Dehydration is when you lose more fluids than you take in. In hot, humid or high work rates environments, this is a particular risk. Even if workers replenish the lost sweat with equal amounts of water, they may still suffer from dehydration due to the loss of salt caused by sweating. As well as feeling thirsty, dehydration can make individuals dizzy, lightheaded, lethargic, and reduce urine output or cause headaches. More severe dehydration can lead to low blood pressure, fever and unconsciousness, and, if untreated, death.
As well as the direct health implication of heat stress and dehydration, there is a range of associated risks that are often forgotten or missed. If someone faints when working at height, they may fall; radiant heat may cause burns – think of how hot your steering wheel can get in the sun – now imagine a metal handle or lever on farm equipment that has been baking in the sun. Hands can slip while holding or using tools and equipment due to sweat. There are also psychological impacts, as heat stress and dehydration can impair cognitive functions and increases human error, as concentration is affected; a worker may forget to guard a machine or make a calculation error when mixing chemicals.
Another area that is often overlooked is the maintenance of equipment. In recent years, there have been a number of tragic deaths in the bakery industry during the maintenance of industrial ovens. Workers have died when they have entered the oven for maintenance, but proper controls for making sure the oven is completely cold have not been in place – in simple terms, these workers have been cooked alive.
PPE can also increase the risk of heat stress, even in working environments that aren’t hot. The PPE, if heavy, used in hot conditions or high work rates, can increase the body’s temperature. PPE also reduces the body’s ability to cool itself through sweating. For women, this risk can be further increased as the monthly menstrual cycle increases core body temperature, and it can become even more serious during pregnancy and menopause. Many of these same risks can affect transgender and non-binary individuals as well.
Finally, we can’t cover heat risks without mentioning UV radiation. Working outdoors increases exposure to UV radiation, even if it is not sunny or hot (up to 80 percent of UV rays can penetrate clouds). UV radiation can cause skin damage, including sunburn, blistering, skin aging and, in the long term, could lead to skin cancer.
The Economic Impact
Heat stress also significantly impacts productivity and the economy – we’ve probably all experienced the lethargy that comes with heat; this is a natural part of our body’s self-defense mechanism – to slow down when it’s hot. Add in the need to take longer or more frequent breaks or to adapt working patterns, such as reducing hours during the peak of the heat, and it is easy to see how this can add up. The International Labour Office’s 2019 report ‘Working on a warmer planet: The impact of heat stress on labor productivity and decent work’ found that:
“By 2030, the equivalent of more than 2 percent of total working hours worldwide is projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace. In Southern Asia and Western Africa, the resulting productivity loss may even reach 5 percent. Heat stress is projected to reduce total working hours worldwide by 2.2 percent and global GDP by USD 2,400 billion in 2030.”
For the U.S., the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center 2021 report ‘Extreme Heat, The Economic and Social Consequences for the United States found that:
“Under baseline climate conditions, the United States could lose on average approximately $100 billion annually from heat-induced lost labor productivity—approximately the annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security ($51.7 billion) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development ($44.1 billion) combined (US Government Publishing Office 2019). By 2050, 80 percent of the counties in the United States could lose more than 0.5 percent of their GVA due to heat-related productivity losses, and 86 percent of the counties in the United States may face losses of at least $5 million per year.”
What Action to Take?
As with all health and safety risks, starting with eliminating the risk (the top of the hierarchy of controls) is where we should aim, but with many aspects of heat risk, this is not possible. So unusually, I’m going to start with awareness and training. This needs to cover heat stress and dehydration – what it is, how to recognize it both in yourself and others (peer recognition of heat stress is an important part of heat risk management) and, of course, what action to take (controls to use). It is also essential that first aiders are also trained to deal with heat stress and dehydration.
But the training and awareness should also include understanding what to eat and drink. Some food and drinks may increase the risk. Drinks with caffeine, a diuretic, need to be limited or at least balanced with water intake (not just coffee, but many energy drinks have very high caffeine levels). Alcohol is also a diuretic. Of course, alcohol during working hours is usually not permitted, but the dehydration effects of a few drinks out of hours can last into the following workday. High-protein diets can also increase the risk of dehydration as they do not encourage fluid absorption. And don’t forget to cover the risks from UV radiation from the sun and how to protect workers!
For those working externally or internally in high-temperature environments, organizations need to provide a space where workers are insulated from high temperatures (such as a rest room away from the working area or somewhere shaded, perhaps using reflective material). Using engineering controls to cool or move the air (air-conditioning or fans) and reduce sources of heat and steam with insulation, shielding and effective maintenance. Adapting work patterns so that external work or physical tasks are done outside peak hours of heat (11 am-3 pm) or for internal activities limiting time working in the heat or increasing the number of workers per task are also effective mitigations. And, of course, it is essential to provide water, ideally cooled, to maintain hydration and regulate body temperature.
Where PPE is required to protect from other hazards, it should be assessed for thermal risk and comfort. The development of smart PPE is seeing innovations such as wearables that monitors body temperature or provide active cooling mechanisms.
Organizations also need to identify if there are particular workers who are more at risk – underlying health conditions, weight, certain medications, menstruation, menopause and age may be factors that need to be considered. Likewise, time to acclimatize is important – this is particularly relevant for traveling workers who are visiting different climate zones (groups like journalists, military, researchers, specialist engineering teams, etc.).
In the medium to longer term, organizations need to consider more permanent arrangements. For many, there is a great opportunity to do this as they consider the future of work following the pandemic. Many organizations are considering the design and function of their office spaces – this is the perfect opportunity to consider thermal comfort and to design in risk mitigation measures.
Organizations can also look to other counties and countries. While parts of the U.S. have temperate conditions, others, such as Texas, deal with high temperatures much more frequently. Heat risk management is common in places like Australia, the Middle East, Africa and many other countries.
The current heatwaves serve to remind us of the urgent need for organizations to prioritize their people and sustainability, both for the sake of their workforce and the environment, because the two are inextricably linked.