With the wide temperature swings we’ve had here in the Midwest this spring, sometimes it can be hard to believe that summer and the heat-related health and safety concerns it brings is nearly here.
To draw attention to this fact, some states observe a Heat Safety Awareness or Heat Awareness Day each year in the mid- to late spring each year. Being aware of the health and safety risks posed by exposure to heat in the workplace is a year-round concern.
Heat stress related injuries are often the result of the body’s inability to cope with prolonged exposure to extreme heat. It is of particular concern during the hot summer months, particularly for people who work in factories, in construction, or in agriculture. In its materials – fact sheets, posters, quick cards, training guides, and wallet cards – OSHA makes it clear that workers at risk include anyone who is exposed to hot and humid conditions, especially anyone performing heavy work tasks and/or using bulky personal protective equipment. Those at greater risk of heat stress include people 65 years of age or older, those who are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or who take medications that can be affected by extreme heat.
Prevention of heat stress in employees is as important as any aspect of safety plan design. Employers need to train to workers to understand what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety, and how it can be prevented. Heat can also indirectly lead to other injuries by causing sweaty palms and dizziness. With summer on our doorstep, now is a good time to review how your workplace safety plans address employee heat exposure through engineering controls and preventive work practices.
OSHA makes it clear that employers are responsible for providing workplaces that are safe from excessive heat. That can also include furnishing workers with water, rest and shade, as well as education about the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and their prevention. For example, being able to “take the heat” is a gradual process, and some workers might be at greater risk than others if they have not yet built up a tolerance to hot conditions. For those reasons, OSHA recommends allowing more frequent breaks for new workers or workers who have been away from the job for a week or more in order to acclimatize to conditions.
For its part, the agency is continuing its nationwide campaign to raise awareness and educate employers and workers on the hazards of working in the heat, along with steps to take in preventing heat-related illnesses and death. The message contained in the campaign’s slogan “Water, Rest, Shade” has already reached nearly 11 million people since it began in 2011, according to OSHA.
Worksite training and plans should also address the steps to take both to prevent heat illness and what to do in an emergency. Prompt, proper action really can save lives.
OSHA's main safety points for people who work in hot environments are:
•Drink water every 15 minutes, even if you're not thirsty.
•Rest in the shade to cool down.
•Wear a hat and light-colored clothing.
•Learn the signs of heat illness and what to do in an emergency.
•Keep an eye on fellow workers.
OSHA maintains a dedicated webpage, https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html, that includes a heat safety tool app, a training guide and lesson plan, and other resources all aimed at keeping worker health and safety risks low when the mercury starts to head skyward.