With the summer months quickly arriving, we are looking forward to BBQs and lots of good times outdoors. But it also means that some of us will be working in the sun and heat, performing our jobs with occupational safety hazards not found in the cooler seasons.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that between 2011 and 2019, nearly 200 workers died from environmental heat exposure while performing their jobs. Heat illnesses are becoming such significant occupational health and safety issues that the OSHA has made it a priority with their heat illness prevention campaign as well as a rulemaking to develop an enforceable heat illness standard for employers.
So what are heat illnesses, exactly? Well, they are a category of illnesses and symptoms that can be very dangerous to an employee working outside in rising temperatures. For example, heat stress can physically and mentally impact and impair a person working in the heat, resulting in serious injuries or worse.
The group of heat illnesses include:
Hot, red skin
Cold, clammy skin
Heat cramps (during physical work)
Intense muscle pain and spasms
Existing health conditions
In their proposed rule, Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings, OSHA says that in addition to the serious health conditions mentioned above, “excessive heat exacerbates existing health problems like asthma, kidney failure, and heart disease, and can cause heat stroke and even death if not treated properly and promptly.”
What can you do?
We may be powerless against Mother Nature, however there are a number of steps that employers can take to protect their outdoor team members effectively and proactively. Depending on your industry, your employees may work outside part-time or out in the elements for the entire day. Regardless of the type of work or professional area, there are measures that can be taken now to prevent heat illnesses and heat illness-related injuries down the road.
Provide accessible, clean water
It is the employer’s responsibility to provide constant access to fresh water for those working in the heat. This can include installed water fountains and bottle refill stations in accessible areas, or it can be regularly replenished water bottles for staff – the point is that hydration is a top priority.
Provide accessible shade and shelter
The State of California says access to shade must be permitted by agricultural employers at all times and is required when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In this case, the state that “the employer shall have and maintain one or more areas with shade at all times while employees are present that are either open to the air or provided with ventilation or cooling.”
Provide – no mandate– regular breaks
When working in the heat, you become fatigued and tire more easily. This is why employers must make it mandatory for outdoor workers to take regular, scheduled breaks. Breaks must be mandated because sometimes the employees forget and must be reminded, but most importantly, these intermissions will prevent burnout, heat exhaustion as well as other heat-related health issues.
Provide protective clothing and headwear
For those working outdoors, do not require them to wear heavy, hot company-branded clothing. Instead, provide them or ask that they wear loose-fitting and light-colored work wear that will be comfortable and relatively cool in the hot weather. Additionally, provide headwear and eye protection if needed when working in the direct sunlight – this can also include PPE and other protective wear.
Provide constant connection
People working in hot conditions must have the means to request help if they feel ill or get hurt. This can include two-way radios or a proactive safety check-in app for those working alone. But what if they fall and can’t request help themselves? Leverage existing safety technologies such as fall detection and other motion features which will call for help when the worker is unable to.
Strategize physical labor
For employees who must perform physical labor as part of their job, try to plan this type of for earlier in the mornings or later in the day when it is cooler. Employers can even look ahead at weather forecasts to schedule specific tasks and work in which heat stress is a serious safety concern. This work done beforehand can prevent any health and work issues from occurring down the road.
OHS legislation and regulations
There is currently no federal legislation requiring employers to take specific steps in heat illness prevention, but there is a moral obligation to protect these people working in some hot conditions. We must look to jurisdiction like California where their employers are required to take four steps to prevent heat illness:
1. Training: Train and educate all employees about heat illness prevention.
2. Water: Provide and encourage employees to drink at least 1 quart of fresh water every hour.
3. Shade: Encourage employees to take a five-minute rest in a provided shaded area.
4. Planning: Develop and implement written protocols according to the Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Prevention Standard.
Most importantly: be aware
Ultimately, employers and managers need to be aware of the conditions their team members are working in. This means constantly monitoring the weather, temperature and even factors such as humidity and wind to determine how safe these people are, but also to see what can be done now before anyone gets ill or hurt. As long as they stay hydrated, shaded and connected, outdoor workers can do their important jobs safely and comfortably.