Beating the Heat: Essential Safety Practices for Protecting Workers
Blog | May 24th, 2024

Beating the Heat: Essential Safety Practices for Protecting Workers

As summer temperatures soar, the risk of heat stress in the workplace becomes a critical safety concern. Heat stress, if not properly managed, can lead to serious health problems such as heat stroke, dehydration, and even fatal incidents. This is especially true in physically demanding industries where employees are exposed to high temperatures. Recognizing and mitigating these risks is not just a matter of regulatory compliance but a crucial aspect of workplace safety and employee health.

In this blog, we explore real-life incidents to understand the importance of implementing robust safety precautions to manage heat stress effectively.

Heat Hazards: Anecdotes from OSHA Investigations

A 42-year-old roofer started working for an employer who didn’t have a structured plan to manage heat-related health and safety hazards. The employer did have water, ice, and even Gatorade on site to beat the heat, but that was it. On the first two days at work, the worker felt fine. On the third day, the temperature increased to 86°F and relative humidity to 57%, for a heat index of 90°F. Feeling hot and sick, the worker informed his colleagues and took a break. He rested under the sun and suffered a heat stroke. The colleagues noticed it only a while later, and by the time they took him to the hospital, it was too late. Unfortunately, this story is real, and we’ve picked up the details from the reported incident to OSHA.

In another instance, a 35-year-old foundry worker with six years of experience was asked to perform a task near molten metal and ovens. He normally worked in the cooler part of the building and wasn’t usually tasked with working near the ovens. This particular task required him to work in a hotter environment, and he used heavy protective clothing to prevent skin burns. Several hours later, he collapsed and died of heat stroke.

The biggest mistake made: the worker ended up with the wrong PPE for that particular task, in an environment of extreme heat. Also, it is clear that there was no “permit to work” system in place, to check if the worker had taken the necessary precautions.

Both these stories highlight the critical need for employers to implement and enforce comprehensive heat stress management strategies to safeguard their workers.

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Understanding the Risks of Extreme Heat

As summers become warmer, the outside environment can cause heat stroke for outdoor workers. But even indoors, the temperatures can shoot up based on the nature of the job and ventilation allowed. As a result, despite heat-related illness being preventable, out of the millions of U.S. workers exposed to heat in their workplaces, several succumb to the heat exposure. Especially the initial few days of exposure till the body gets acclimatized is crucial, as 50% to 70% of the fatalities are reported to have occurred in the initial few days of being exposed to warm or hot environments.

Some of the common risk factors for heat illness at the workplace include:

  • Heavy physical activity
  • Warm or hot environmental conditions
  • Poor acclimatization
  • Wearing clothing that retains body heat
  • Personal risk factors such as pre-existing health conditions and lifestyle

Heat exposure is not just an outdoor or summer phenomenon but can also occur indoors and during any season, depending on the work conditions. Some of the industries where heat illnesses are common include:

  • Agriculture
  • Bakeries, kitchens, and laundries
  • Construction
  • Fire Service
  • Manufacturing with hot local heat sources such as furnaces
  • Oil and gas well operations
  • Warehousing
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Heat exposure can cause mild to severe illnesses. It could start with headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, profuse sweating, hot, dry skin, higher body temperature, severe thirst, and decreased urine output.

More severe manifestations can include:

  • Heat Stroke is a severe manifestation caused by the body’s inability to control its temperature and cool down. The body temperature can increase to 106°F or more in 10 to 15 minutes. As it can cause permanent disability or death, emergency treatment is a must. Watch out for symptoms such as confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech, fainting or coma, and seizures.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Excessive sweating can lead to excessive loss of water and salt and may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, decreased urine output, and high body temperature.
  • Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo): Heat stress and prolonged physical exertion can cause rhabdo, which leads to rapid breakdown, rupture, and death of muscle. This causes electrolytes and large proteins to be released into the bloodstream, affecting heart rhythm, seizures, and kidney damage. Muscle cramps/pain, very dark urine, weakness, and exercise intolerance are some of the symptoms to watch out for.
  • Heat Syncope: Heat syncope refers to fainting or dizziness due to standing for too long or standing up suddenly after sitting or lying. Dehydration and lack of acclimatization are the causes of heat syncope.
  • Heat Cramps: Arduous work can cause heat cramps due to profuse sweating, which depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels.
  • Heat Rash: Excessive sweating due to hot, humid weather can cause the skin to break out into rashes, pimples, or small blisters on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts, and elbow creases.

Heat-related issues are a health hazard for individual workers. They also impact workplace productivity, employee morale, and brand reputation. Furthermore, acknowledging the seriousness of heat illness, different standards also provide guidelines and requirements to ensure worker safety from heat exposure. Some of the standards include:

OSHA Standard-General Duty Clause: Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers have a legal obligation to make the workplace safe by implementing controls to mitigate the impact of hazards, including heat exposure, that can cause illness or death.

NIOSH's Recommended Heat Standard: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides guidelines to prevent heat-related illnesses.

The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standard (29 CFR 1910.132(d)) requires employers to assess the appropriate PPE to protect workers from various hazards, including heat exposure.

Sanitation Standards at 29 CFR 1910.141, 29 CFR 1915.88, 29 CFR 1917.127, 29 CFR 1918.95, 29 CFR 1926.51, and 29 CFR 1928.110 mandate providing potable water for all employees by employers.

The Medical Services and First Aid standards at 29 CFR 1910.151, 29 CFR 1915.87, 29 CFR 1917.26, 29 CFR 1918.97, and 29 CFR 1926.50, require that personnel be trained to provide first aid, especially if there are no easily accessible medical facilities.

Hierarchy of Controls: Mitigating the Heat Risk

In safety management, the hierarchy of controls enables the identification and ranking of safeguards for protecting workers from hazards. Arranged in the descending order from most to least effective controls, they are of 5 types:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative controls
  • Personal protective equipment

For mitigating heat risk, the hierarchy of controls can be as follows:

Elimination

  • Schedule Adjustments: Work during cooler parts of the day, such as early mornings or evenings.
  • Remote Work: Allow employees to work from cooler, air-conditioned locations when possible.

Substitution

  • Replace Tasks: Substitute high-intensity tasks with lower-intensity ones during peak heat times.
  • Use of Technology: Employ machinery or automation to perform tasks that would otherwise expose workers to high heat.

Engineering Controls

  • Ventilation and Cooling Systems: Install fans, air conditioning, or evaporative cooling systems in work areas.
  • Shade Structures: Build or use temporary shelters to provide shade in outdoor work environments.
  • Insulated Tools and Equipment: Use equipment that remains cool to the touch to prevent burns and overheating.
  • Reflective Shields: Use reflective shields to reduce heat absorption from direct sunlight.

Administrative Controls

  • Training and Education: Provide ongoing training on the risks of heat exposure, preventive measures, and emergency responses. Educate workers about the importance of hydration and rest.
  • Rest Breaks: Implement mandatory rest breaks in cool or shaded areas to allow workers to recover.
  • Heat Acclimatization Programs: Gradually increase exposure time to heat over several days to help workers adjust safely and reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses.
  • Hydration and Breaks: Encourage regular hydration with water and electrolyte-replenishing fluids, and schedule frequent rest breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas.
  • Monitor Weather and Worker Health: Use weather monitoring tools to track heat indexes and implement safety measures accordingly. Actively monitor workers for signs of heat-related illnesses, with supervisors trained to recognize symptoms early and respond promptly.
  • Adjust Work Schedules: Adjust work schedules to cooler times of the day and reduce physical demands during peak heat times.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Cooling Vests: Provide vests that contain cooling packs to help regulate body temperature.
  • Wide-Brimmed Hats: Offer hats to protect from direct sunlight.
  • Lightweight, Breathable Clothing: Supply uniforms or clothing designed to wick away sweat and provide ventilation.
  • Hydration Packs: Ensure easy access to water through hydration packs or frequent water breaks.

Leverage a Permit to Work System

  • Permit to Work System: Implement a robust Permit to Work system to ensure that only qualified and authorized personnel undertake high-risk tasks, especially in extreme heat conditions. This system helps manage and document the necessary safety checks, ensuring all precautions are met before work begins and maintaining a high safety compliance standard throughout the operation.

Digital Tools to Support Heat Stress Management

Digital tools have emerged as innovative solutions, offering real-time alerts, environmental monitoring, health tracking, and educational resources to enhance safety and operational efficiency in the workplace.

4 digital tools highlighted by Verdantix to mitigate heat-related risks in the workplace include:

  • Mobile Apps: To facilitate outdoor work planning and education on managing heat-related illness by providing real-time insights into the current heat conditions in users’ specific location for workers and supervisors.
  • Wearable Devices: To enable real-time health monitoring based on heat stress factors using advanced sensor technology to offer real-time health monitoring and personalized strategies based on heat stress factors. These devices enhance worker safety, boost productivity and ensure compliance with safety regulations.
  • Predictive Analytics: To inform real-time weather forecasting and heat-related risk management that helps with planning outdoor work activities and proactively reducing heat stress among workers.
  • Online Platforms: To provide training on heat stress identification, impacts and prevention methods, and accommodating self-paced learning to make it a practical, cost-effective and scalable solution for broad implementation.

6 Best Practices to Mitigate Heat Risk

For any organization, it is critical to proactively plan safety measures to beat the risks of heat stress and extreme heat-related hazards. Keep in mind the following best practices:

Best Practices Mitigate Heat Risk Best Practices Mitigate Heat Risk

With the right Safety Management Solution, most of these risk mitigation measures can be automated and streamlined, ensuring that these best practices become part of day-to-day operations.

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