Not all work-related injuries happen because of falls, strains, or other accidents. In fact, one of the most pressing injury risks in the workplace is an environmental hazard: heat.
Most common in the summer months, heat-related injury and illness pose a serious threat to workers across a broad range of industries. The risks can be substantial, even fatal: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 344 heat-related deaths to workers occurred between 2011 and 2019, with some 70,000 illnesses occurring in the longer period between 1992 and 2019. Government agencies have noted that heat-related illnesses and injuries are likely to become more common as a result of changes in the climate leading to higher average temperatures, especially in the summer months. Industries such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, delivery, and oil or gas well operations face some of the greatest risks related to heat.
So how can employers keep their workers safe in the heat? To start, it’s important to understand the potential consequences of heat exposure.
Common Heat-Related Illnesses
Heat stroke occurs when the body loses its ability to regulate its internal temperature. Our built-in cooling mechanisms, such as sweating and breathing, can only keep up so long when a person is exposed to high heat levels. In these cases, the body’s temperature can rise dramatically in just a few minutes, causing symptoms such as confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, and death.
As a result of a severe loss of both water and salt, heat exhaustion symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, severe thirst, and nausea. It’s more likely to affect the elderly and people with comorbidities such as high blood pressure.
This condition can result from heat stress combined with long periods of intense physical exertion, making it a common issue in industries like construction. Commonly known as rhabdo, this condition causes a breakdown and death of muscle tissue and can lead to irregular heart rhythms, seizures, and kidney damage.
These episodes of dizziness and fainting usually occur as a result of standing for too long or standing quickly after a period of sitting down. Dehydration can be a major contributing factor to syncope.
Heat cramps are generally caused by excessive sweating, usually resulting from a combination of high temperature and high-exertion activity. They can cause pain and spasms in the arms, legs, or abdominal region.
Excessive sweating can also lead to heat rash, which causes blistering and painful irritation on the skin.
Best Practices for Managing Heat-Related Illness and Injury
Though high temperatures can pose serious risks to employees, there are several strategies that have proven effective for preventing the illnesses listed above.
Awareness & Education
As is the case with many injury types, one of the most useful tools for fighting heat-related illness is knowledge. Educating safety managers on the risk factors that lead to heat-related illness is the first step in preventing these potentially damaging issues. Managers and employees alike should be trained in recognizing both the conditions that can lead to health issues as well as the physical signs that an individual may be suffering from excessive exposure to heat.
Equally important to know the general symptoms of heat illness is training employees and managers to be aware of individual-specific health factors that may increase risks. Conditions such as cardiac disease, kidney problems, diabetes, asthma, obesity, and a history of heat-related illness can be indicators of increased risk. Some medications, such as blood pressure drugs, antidepressants, or sleep aids can also heighten the risk of heat-related illness. Managers should be aware of employees’ specific health issues that may contribute to health risks.
Promoting Heat Tolerance
According to OSHA, most outdoor heat-related fatalities at work occur in the first few days of working in hot environments. This is because the human body requires time to acclimate to higher temperatures before it can fully tolerate those extremes, especially while performing strenuous tasks. Therefore, safety managers should develop scheduling practices that allow employees to adjust to the heat over time.
Provide Heat Relief
It’s essential that employers create ways to get workers out of the heat at regular intervals so that their bodies can cool down. Managers can help limit excessive exposure to high heat by:
- Providing shaded areas and encouraging or mandating that employees take regular breaks to use them
- Installing fans or misting systems to circulate air and help actively cool employees’ body temperatures
- Utilizing scheduling practices that limit the most strenuous tasks to cooler hours such as mornings, evenings, or night shifts
- Providing convenient ways for employees to stay hydrated during shifts and training workers to hydrate actively even during off hours
Use the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool
OSHA, in tandem with the Department of Labor, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has developed a smartphone app to help employers and workers monitor heat conditions and risk levels. The agencies recommend that all employers in industries operating in high-heat environments download and use the app on a regular basis.
Conclusion: The Best Solution to Heat-Related Illness is a Proactive Safety Plan
Of course, no one method will solve all risks related to heat and environmental risks. Employers should develop safety plans that incorporate solutions to heat hazards at every level, wherever and whenever employees will be working in hot conditions. Contact DORN today for help building and implementing your safety plan today: www.DORNcompanies.com