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Summer Heat and More: An All-Hazard Approach to Working Outdoors

Employers and employees need to watch out for more than just hot weather during the summer.

After the ice and snow begin to melt, but before the daffodils start blooming and the faint murmurs of folks yearning for warm summer weather usually start. For some, it means vacations, relaxation and time with family. For many employees, however, it means working in high heat and humidity.  

With OSHA and several industry groups engaged in rulemaking and the creation of consensus standards to help protect both indoor and outdoor workers who still need to work regardless of the heat, it can be easy to focus solely on creating plans to help prevent dehydration and heat-related injuries. But summer brings other risks that may need to be addressed as well.  

Recognizing all of the hazards that summer work presents and including them in planning efforts help to reduce risk. It will also help with training and emergency response efforts.  

Currently, federal OSHA does not require employers to create a written plan that addresses how workers will be protected from summer hazards. However, employers do have a responsibility to evaluate workplace hazards—including all types of hazards that come from working outdoors and in summer weather.  

Some locations may have similar hazards while others have scenarios that are unique to the facility. Some risks may be specific to the day and time that work is being performed. Involving employees in the planning process is a proven way to help ensure that all known summer hazards are addressed.  

Heat and Humidity  

While some summer hazards may come and go, heat and humidity are likely to be daily issues that typically can’t be engineered out of the process. Recognizing heat and humidity as hazards and planning for them is important because each year, an average of 32 employees die from heat-related injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many of these fatalities are new or temporary workers who have not been properly acclimated to working in hot and humid conditions. Written plans that address work schedules, buddy systems, hydration breaks and supervisors’ duties during hot weather work protect not only these employees but also the more seasoned ones.  

Although a federal rule has not been finalized, guidance is available from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and other industry groups. This guidance can help facilities establish appropriate work/rest cycles based on the temperature, humidity and the types of protective clothing employees are wearing. There is even an app that can be downloaded to any smart device to let employers, supervisors and employees know the heat index in any area of the U.S.  

Storms and Flooding  

A nice, steady rain usually helps to reduce the temperature a bit. However, working during a storm presents a different set of challenges. For example, employees working in open spaces, on tall buildings or near anything that conducts electricity need to be aware of the potential for lightning strikes and know how to get to a designated safe place to reduce their risk of being struck.  

Even if lightning isn’t a threat, summer storms bring rain that can make working surfaces slippery. Employees working at heights are especially vulnerable, but even those at ground level can still be at risk for slips and falls on smooth or muddy surfaces.  

Sometimes, a storm is more than just rain. Summer traditionally sees the winding down of tornado season just as hurricane season begins to ramp up. In areas where tornadoes or hurricanes are known to happen, be sure to include training on how to prepare and respond to these emergencies.  

Employees who may be involved in recovery efforts after storms or flooding face additional risks. In fact, OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have all issued guidance documents for workers who are involved in flood cleanup.  

Vermin and Animals  

Humans aren’t the only creatures that relish a daily dose of Vitamin A from the sun. Many insects and animals also enjoy basking in the sun’s rays.  

Mosquitoes, ants and bees are the most common insects that employees face. In some areas, other insects like fire ants, beetles or dragonflies appear in the daily mix. In addition to controls such as emptying anything that has standing water and keeping lawns mowed, providing employees with long-sleeved shirts, long pants, boots and insect repellant helps to minimize exposure.  

Perhaps more annoying than insects are arachnids including ticks, spiders and scorpions. While ticks actively seek human (and animal) hosts, spiders and scorpions generally try to get away from people. Train employees to recognize biting, poisonous and venomous insects, what actions they can take to avoid being bitten as well as first aid measures.  

Snakes and wild animals vary from region to region but can also be a significant threat to employees. State agencies often have training programs that they can provide at no cost to help employees recognize and avoid injuries from harmful animals in their region.  

Poisonous Plants  

On the first day of summer camps, countless children across the U.S. are taught “leaflets of three, let them be” as a way to help them recognize and avoid poisonous plants in wooded areas. It’s good advice for adults as well.  

Because poison ivy, oak and sumac don’t only lurk in the forest, it helps to be able to recognize them and know which varieties may be present in different work areas. Wearing disposable PPE or long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves can help prevent the urushiol oil in the leaves of these plants from coming in contact with skin. Barrier creams can also help reduce the risk.  

About 15 percent of Americans are not allergic to poison ivy, oak or sumac, according to the American Skin Association. For the remaining 85 percent of the population, contact with the leaves of these plants can cause swelling, redness, itching and other allergic reactions.  

Include cleanup procedures during poisonous plant training. Urushiol can remain on surfaces for up to five years if it is not physically removed. Exposed clothing can be washed separately with detergent and hot water. Tools and equipment can be cleaned with alcohol or with soap and lots of water.  

Pesticides  

Employees who handle pesticides that are being applied to agricultural crops are governed under the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (40 CFR 170). This body of regulations outlines the training requirement as well as other protections for workers involved in these operations.  

While the EPA has jurisdiction over much that has to do with the manufacturing, distribution, application and use of pesticides, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a safety issue. It is still important to evaluate the safety data sheets and labels of any pesticides being used so that preparations can be made for employees to apply and work around them safely.  

Summer Vacationing  

When summer finally comes, it can be tempting to relax and be grateful that the harshness of winter is gone—at least for a season. Creating and maintaining a comprehensive safety plan that encompasses all of the hazards that employees may face when working outdoors in the summer is key to providing that respite. Training employees and providing them with the procedures, tools and provisions they’ll need to not only beat the heat but also tackle everything else that summer throws their way will help them to have a safer summer, too.  

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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