PREVENTING OCCUPATIONAL HEAT EXPOSURE
Throughout the U.S.A. and Canada, high temperatures are becoming the norm. June 2021 brought new highs in over 15% of the United States, the most significant extent of record warm temperatures on record. In Canada, the Canada Heatwave of 2021 is believed to have caused nearly 500 deaths to date.
Millions of workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces. Although illness from exposure to heat is preventable, thousands become sick from occupational heat exposure every year, and some cases are fatal. According to OSHA, in the U.S.A., 50% to 70% of outdoor fatalities occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments. The body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time. The process of building tolerance is called heat acclimatization. Lack of acclimatization represents a major risk factor for fatal outcomes.
Employees at elevated risk for heat illness include those working with heavy physical activity, warm or hot environmental conditions, lack of acclimatization, and clothing that holds in body heat. Hazardous heat exposure can occur indoors or outdoors during any season if the conditions are right, not only during heat waves.
OSHA recommends remembering three words: fluids, rest, and shade. Taking these precautions protects employees from injury or even death.
TIPS FOR WORKING IN HIGH TEMPERATURES
The sun brings special hazards for those working outdoors. Here are some precautions that may save a life.
- Drink small amounts of water frequently, even if you are not thirsty.
- Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing—cotton is good.
- Take frequent short breaks in the cool shade.
- Eat smaller meals before work activity.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
- Work in the shade when possible.
- Find out from your healthcare provider if your medications and heat don’t mix.
- Know that equipment such as respirators and other protective equipment can increase heat stress.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of heat illnesses and what to do in an emergency.
- Keep an eye on coworkers.
THE DANGERS OF WORKING IN THE HEAT
The combination of temperature, humidity, and physical labor can lead to fatalities. The two most severe forms of heat-related illnesses are heat exhaustion (primarily from dehydration) and heat stroke, which could be fatal. Signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke need immediate attention. Recognizing those warning signs and taking quick action can make a difference in preventing a fatality. Employers and employees should know the potential hazards in their workplaces and how to manage them.
There are several mobile apps designed to help combat the dangers of heat-related illness. OSHA and NIOSH have an app that allows any worker or supervisor with a smartphone to calculate the heat index for their workplace. The app then assigns a risk level based upon this number. Additionally, the app can provide reminders about protective measures that should be taken to help prevent heat-related illnesses.
It is one thing to provide your employees with the tools to keep them safe, but truly creating a safe workplace takes training all employees, including management. Skillsoft provides a complete collection of safety and health topics, including Heat Stress Recognition and Prevention, Heat Stress Prevention- Cal-OSHA, Heat Illnesses Prevention for Supervisors – Cal/OSHA, and First Aid: Basic training courses.
Donna McEntee is the Director for Workplace Safety and Health Products at Skillsoft.