The National Weather Service has deemed extreme heat as the deadliest weather phenomenon over a 30-year average1. Heatwaves are becoming increasingly hotter, lasting longer, and are happening more frequently2. With the increasing demand for business products and services, it is expected that workers are going to be busier than ever during a very hot summer season. It is important to prevent heat-related adverse effects for the safety of employees and the health of the business. You can help protect yourself, colleagues, and employees by raising awareness, examining the environment, and developing a plan to prevent the conditions that cause heat-related illnesses, injuries, and deaths.
The accumulation of high temperatures, little to no air ventilation, and radiant and conductive heat sources are driving factors that increase the risk of employees experiencing heat-related illness and injuries. A single heat-related incident diverts time and human resources from a productive workday. It may also result in significant lost time, unintentional accidents, OSHA investigations, and possibly death.
Lower the Risk of Heat-Related Illness or Injury
Here are three steps to help lower the likelihood of someone in your company experiencing a heat-related illness or injury.
1. Raising awareness on the effects of nonoccupational factors.
People regulate heat and water loss and retention differently throughout their life stages. Older people and pregnant people are at increased risk for heat-related illnesses. This is due to the need for greater amounts of energy to cool down on a hot day. Additionally, people with certain health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, are also at increased risk for heat-related illnesses. The disease process, along with certain medications used to manage chronic illnesses, alters a person’s ability to adjust water, salt, and minerals levels. Irregular equilibrium states become exacerbated when people are exposed to really high temperatures.
Several substances can alter a person’s ability to regulate their core body temperature. Medications, including diuretics, antihistamines, and laxatives, decrease tolerance to higher temperatures. People who consume alcohol, especially during the hottest parts of the day, are at higher risk of becoming dehydrated and experiencing heat-related symptoms.
No one is completely immune from experiencing mild, moderate, and severe heat illness and injuries. Everyone has days when they may not have consumed enough water, are working in a very warm area, or are using a substance that alters how their body regulates heat and water. Drinking water consistently — before, during, and after work – prior to experiencing thirst is the best way to consume water and avert heat-related illness.
2. Be alert to the work environment.
Identifying modifiable environmental conditions that lower the air temperature and increase air movement can cool the work site. Audit the work environment to locate the warmest areas in the building. This may fluctuate throughout the day as people utilize spaces; differently, the sun comes through different windows, and radiant heat sources are used more frequently. Radiant heat sources, such as large machines, are warm to the touch and heat the air around them. When possible, move work and workers away from radiant heat sources. Check that windows and fans are working properly so that air flows freely. Choose an easily accessible “cool down space” that employees can utilize if their work environment cannot be altered. For employees that work outside, provide seating and cool water under a shaded area for rest and recovery.
When changing the physical environment is not possible, identify hot work operations. Hot work operations are tasks that are done outside. They are also operations that produce significant heat while done in confined or enclosed spaces. Welding, cutting, heating, working with flammable and combustible materials, and ultraviolet radiation are common types of hot operations4. When possible, schedule hot operations during the cooler part of the day (early morning, late afternoon, or night shift). You might also schedule alternate rather than successive days or stagger hot operations throughout the day. Move annual routine repairs and maintenance of hot and heavy machinery to cooler times of the year or the coolest part of the day.
3. Come together with a plan.
NIOSH recommends establishing a Heat Alert Committee of diverse stakeholders: a healthcare provider, industrial hygienist, safety engineer, environmental health and safety, supervisors, and frontline workers3. If formalizing a committee is impossible, a few dedicated individuals can use this as a reference for preventing and early detection of heat-related illness. The committee’s goal is to decrease heart-related adverse events through reverse winterizing the building, training staff, and declaring heat alerts. Reverse winterizing the building includes opening windows and vents and ensuring that fans, water fountains, and air conditioners work properly.
This committee provides training on the signs and symptoms of the various types of heat-related illnesses— such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat rash, and heatstroke—and the administration of first aid. This committee reinforces the importance of immediately reporting any symptoms or signs of heat illness to the supervisor. They encourage supervisors to take complaints of heat disorders seriously and have workers evaluated by a medical provider as appropriate.
This committee monitors the daily weather report and sets the criteria for declaring a heat alert. OSHA states that temperatures over 85 degrees are of concern and should trigger heat precautions. In an example provided by NIOSH, a heat alert is declared if the area weather forecast for the next day predicts a maximum air temperature of at least 35°C (95°F) or if a maximum temperature of 32°C (90°F) is predicted and is 5°C (9°F) higher than the temperature reached on any of the preceding three days3. Depending on where you are located, and taking into consideration humidity levels, determine what heat alert is appropriate for your organization.
Raising awareness, examining the environment, and developing a plan to prevent the conditions that cause heat-related illness and injuries can prevent devastating adverse health and productivity outcomes. See part one of this article here.
- OSHA at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/prevention.html#training
- NIOSH at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/heatstress/
- Cal/OSHA at http://www.dir.ca.gov