Employers Need Strategies to Protect Outdoor Workers from Heat Safety Risks
When we think about people who work outdoors, we tend to think how tough it must be in the winter. Surely the outdoor worker looks forward to the spring and the onset of summer even more profoundly than the average person.
But working outdoors in the summer, or in a hot factory, is not without its hazards. Working in extreme conditions – especially if the experience isn’t managed properly – can present very serious health risks.
And the risk is not just theoretical. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in the past four decades, more than 9,000 Americans have died from heat-related illnesses. The worst year was 2006, which should come as no surprise because it was a year with an unusual number of heat-wave type weather events.
The same EPA report indicates that people over 65 are several times more likely to suffer and die from heat-related illnesses than the population in general.
To the extent this involves people working outdoors in hot conditions, both workers and their employers need a better understanding of how to mitigate these risks.
Excessive exposure to heat can cause a range of heat-related illnesses, including heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and even heat stroke. Understanding the body’s natural process of cooling itself offers some insight into why this happens and help employers prevent heat issues in the workplace.
When the air temperature is close to or warmer than normal body temperature, cooling of the body becomes more difficult. Blood circulated to the skin cannot lose its heat, which makes sweat the body’s primary method of cooling off. But sweating is effective only if the humidity level is low enough to allow evaporation, and if the fluids and salts that are lost are adequately replaced.
If the body cannot get rid of excess heat, it will store it. When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, the person begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing on a task. Sometimes people may become irritable or sick, or even lose the desire to drink fluids.
The next stage is most often fainting, and even death if the person is not cooled down.
In a 2014 report, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health emphasized understanding the impacts of heat on the central nervous system, circulatory regulation and electrolyte balance. It also focused on the value of good dietary choices and the right kind of clothing.
Obviously the best thing you can do to limit heat-related risk is to limit the time each worker spends in extreme heat. Maybe there are certain parts of the job that can be performed indoors or elsewhere, and workers could rotate to ensure that all get a reasonable amount of time in a temperature-controlled environment.
But obviously, you can’t do that with every job. Firefighters, construction workers, farm workers and many others simply must do a substantial portion of their work outdoors. So here are some things to keep in mind as you send them out into that heat:
The factors that present the greatest risk include:
- Environmental: High temperature and humidity, Radian heat sources, contact with hot objects, direct sun exposure and limited air movement.
- Job-Specific: Use of bulky or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment.
Now for the good news. These actions can significantly reduce the risk of heat-related health problems:
- Schedule work activities during cooler times of the day.
- Ensure workers have adequate safe water close to the work area and that they drink small amounts frequently.
- Provide frequent rest breaks in a shaded or air-conditioned recovery area.
- Reduce the physical demands of the job.
- Ensure that employees wear reflective clothing when appropriate and loose-fitting, light colored clothes when outside.
- Allow workers to work in rotation, or otherwise find ways to reduce time in hot areas.
- Have an emergency plan in place that specifies what to do if a worker has signs of heat-related illness and ensures that medical services are available, if needed.
There are not currently any specific OSHA standards for occupational heat exposure. But under the General Duty Clause, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”
This means your company is required to provide adequate drinking water and use any work practices above to reduce heat exposure for all affected employees.
Summer may be a welcome season for outdoor workers, but employers need to take care to protect them from the health risks of summer’s hottest days. Warmth is wonderful, but extreme heat can be deadly – especially when basic safety precautions are not taken.