Risk & Safety | Preventing Heat Illness at Work
As the Texas heat kicks into high gear with the official start of summer on June 21, it's important to remind one another about the heat-related dangers at work and ways to prevent heat illness.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 work-related deaths were reported in 2019 due to environmental heat exposure. While heat illness is preventable, it is commonly under-reported, and it's estimated thousands of workers are sick each year as a result of workplace heat exposure.
In an effort to encourage employers to implement greater safeguards against heat-related illness in the workplace, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking regarding future standards known as the OSHA's National Emphasis Program.
"The NEP applies when employees are exposed to outdoor heat at or above 80°F with the humidity at or above 40 percent. This program does not apply to incidental exposure, which exists when an employee is not required to perform a work activity outdoors for more than fifteen minutes in any sixty-minute period," a blog from Ogletree Deakins said.
Identifying Heat-Related Illnesses
While you hear many native Texans express their ability to 'adapt' to the extreme Texas summers, the reality is many of us aren't well-versed when it comes to identifying heat-related illnesses. Beyond simply staying out too long in the sun, there's a range of heat-related illnesses that could potentially spell danger to anyone having to work under heat exposure.
"At HR Service Partners (HRSP), we take safety very seriously. In Texas, we have already had more triple-digit temperature days in 2022 than we had in all of 2021, and it's only June," HRSP Risk & Safety Director Pete Delgado said. "Providing proactive processes to ensure all our client companies' worksite employees understand the dangers of heat is critical. Onsite managers and supervisors must be vigilant in the overseeing of their employees during this brutal heatwave."
For example, there are three types of heat-related illnesses to be aware of:
Heat cramps are identified as painful muscle cramps or spasms occurring during or after a period of intense exercise and sweating in high heat. Typically, are the mildest form of heat illness and
Heat exhaustion is a more severe illness resulting from a loss of water and salt in the body. This occurs when someone is exposed to extreme heat and excessive sweating without adequate fluid and salt replacement, resulting in the body's inability to cool itself properly and may progress to heat stroke if left untreated.
The most severe form of heat illness, heatstroke, occurs when the body's regulating system is overtaken by excessive heat. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency and requires urgent medical attention.
Prevention Is Key
While heat hazards can impact us all regardless of age and physical condition, it's critical to be proactive and maintain ways for workers to stay safe and healthy. OSHA offers the following ways to protect yourself and others to prevent with these simple solutions.
Nearly three out of four fatalities occur during the first week of work. Workers, both new and returning, should begin by building a tolerance to heat (acclimate) by taking frequent breaks.
Following the 20% rule offers a significant way to keep workers safe when working under intense heat conditions. OSHA suggests working no more than 20% of the shift's duration at full intensity in the heat on the first day; increase the duration of time at full intensity by no more than 20% a day until workers are used to working in the heat.
Drinking cool water, at least one cup every 20 minutes, is heavily advised even if not thirsty. Taking advantage of rest breaks is also critical, and workers are encouraged to take adequate time to recover from the heat given the temperature, humidity, and conditions.
For employers, designating a shady or cool area to take breaks helps limit exposure to direct heat. Employees working in the heat are encouraged to wear a hat and light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing if possible. Monitoring yourself and your co-workers is a critical step to ensure we all remain healthy and safe from preventable heat illnesses at work.
When in doubt, act quickly and call 911.
As global temperatures rise, and summer record temperatures are reported annually, employers have become increasingly aware of the need to combat the hazards associated with extreme heat exposure (indoors and outdoors) and have expanded efforts to address heat-related illnesses.
For more information, including signs to watch for and first aid measures and actions to take if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of heat-related distress, visit www.osha.gov.