Wednesday, May 23, 2012 3:00 AM
by Chris Kilbourne
Every year, thousands of workers become sick from exposure to heat, and some even die. But your people don’t have to suffer. These illnesses and deaths are preventable.
With summer just around the corner and heat and humidity on the rise, many employers need to start thinking about and planning to prevent employee heat-related illness.
Although OSHA doesn’t have a specific standard that covers working in hot conditions, under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, you nevertheless have a duty to protect workers from recognized serious hazards in the workplace, including heat-related hazards.
This means right off the bat you need answers to three very important questions.
What Is Heat Illness?
The body normally cools itself by sweating. During hot weather, especially with high humidity, sweating isn’t enough. Body temperature can rise to dangerous levels if precautions are not taken. Heat illnesses range from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke can result in death and requires immediate medical attention.
Who Is Affected?
Workers exposed to hot and humid conditions are at risk of heat illness, especially those doing heavy work tasks or using bulky protective clothing and equipment. Some workers might be at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions.
How Can Heat Illness Be Prevented?
Remember these three words:
Drinking water often, taking breaks, and limiting time in the heat can help prevent heat illness. Include these prevention steps in worksite training and plans.
Additional steps can also help prevent heat-related illness on the job whether employees are working outside or inside in a hot environment:
- Gradually increase workloads and allow more frequent breaks during the first week or so of hot weather for all heat-exposed workers.
- Pay special attention to workers who are new on the job or have been away from work for a week or more when the weather is hot. Make sure supervisors acclimate (or reacclimate) them properly to working in the heat.
- Also make sure employees and supervisors know the symptoms of heat illness and look out for these signs in themselves and others during hot weather.
- Plan for heat-related emergencies, and make sure everyone knows what to do. Acting quickly in heat illness emergencies can save lives.
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Using the Heat Index
Workers become overheated from two primary sources:
- Environmental conditions in which they work (whether hot weather outside or hot conditions inside)
- Internal heat generated by physical labor
To make sure workers keep safe as the heat rises, review this table, which matches temperatures, risk levels, and protective measures for high temperatures:
|Less than 91ºF
|Basic heat safety and planning
|91ºF to 103ºF
|Implement precautions and heighten awareness
|103ºF to 115ºF
|Additional precautions to protect workers
|Greater than 115ºF
|Very high to extreme
|Triggers even more aggressive protective measures
For lower caution risk level, encourage workers to:
- Drink plenty of water (make sure it is available).
- Wear a hat and sunscreen.
- Take rest breaks in an air conditioned or cool, shaded area.
- Acclimate if new or returning to work and performing strenuous work.
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For moderate risk level, encourage workers to take all of the precautions above, plus:
- Watch for signs of heat stress (be sure to review signs in a safety meeting and instruct supervisors to watch for symptoms).
- Drink at least 4 cups of water every hour (make sure it is available).
- Report heat-related symptoms immediately and seek appropriate first aid (explain who to call and review first aid for heat illness in safety meeting).
- Call 911 if a worker loses consciousness or appears confused or uncoordinated.
For the high risk level, you should take these additional precautions to protect workers:
- Increase rest periods.
- Designate a knowledgeable person (well informed on heat-related illness) at the worksite to determine appropriate work/rest schedules.
- Reduce the workload, and pace strenuous work tasks.
- Make sure cool, fresh water is available, and remind workers to drink plenty of water every 15 to 20 minutes.
For very high and extreme risk levels:
- Reschedule all non-essential outdoor work to days when the heat index is lower.
- Move essential outdoor work to the coolest part of the work shift.
- As much as possible allow for earlier start times, split shifts, or evening and night shifts.
- Prioritize and plan essential work tasks carefully. Strenuous work tasks and those requiring the use of heavy or non-breathable clothing or impermeable chemical protective clothing should not be conducted when the heat index is at or above 115°F.
- Stop work if essential control methods are inadequate or unavailable when the risk of heat illness is very high.