Practical Tips for Avoiding Heat Illness on the Job

The U.S. Department of Labor states that occupational heat illnesses are widely under-reported. And yet, dozens of workers die every year from heat stroke and thousands more are seriously injured. What’s worse is that almost every single one of those heat injuries would’ve been preventable with effective safety measures in place.

Those measures aren’t difficult to establish, however, and there are low-cost, high impact resources that can help support a safe workplace.

Here are five examples of practical tips for avoiding heat illness on the job:

1) Know the Signs and Symptoms of Heat Illnesses

Before heat illnesses progress to potentially fatal emergencies, there are usually noticeable signs of distress that others can respond to. Heat exhaustion, for example, typically presents prior to heat stroke, but it may progress to heat stroke within minutes. It’s therefore critical that safety personnel and workers know what signs to respond to.

The symptoms of heat illness are:

  • Heavy sweating or complete lack of it
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Weak, racing pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Agitation
  • In severe instances, loss of consciousness may also be present

Sometimes, the above symptoms may come on quickly, but in many cases, the affected worker will demonstrate tell-tale signs in time to administer treatment. If provided promptly, treatment can stop minor heat illnesses from developing into something more serious.

That’s why everyone shares responsibility for detecting heat illness on the worksite. That includes the workers themselves, as they know their coworkers best and are usually right there when heat dangers are at their most intense.

2) Develop and Implement a Heat-Specific Safety Plan

According to OSHA regulations, every worksite is expected to have an emergency action plan (EAP) in place. At a minimum, the EAP must include:

  • The location of emergency exits and exit routes. These should be mapped onto a floorplan of the worksite.
  • What medical or fire authorities to contact in the event of an emergency.
  • How to alert employees when an emergency is in progress and how to contact family or next of kin, as well.

From OSHA’s perspective, that’s sufficient for an EAP, but employers overseeing hazardous worksites are expected to go a bit further with their safety planning. And on sites where dangerous levels of heat are expected, it makes sense for employers to develop a heat-specific safety plan. Such a plan should include the following:

  • The location and nature of any heat-related hazards on the job site. In areas like cement plants, mills, foundries, fabrication plants and other industrial centers, heat may concentrate in spots to the point where it results in hazardous conditions.
  • A series of procedures to be deployed should a heat-related emergency occur.
  • What processes are in place to monitor and mitigate any heat hazards.
  • An inventory of all heat-related medical resources and their locations on the worksite.
  • Contact information for a nearby emergency medical facility. Time is critical when treating heat illness, as it may only take minutes for symptoms to progress to something life-threatening. If heat stroke does occur, contacting the medical facility on file should be one of the first measures taken.

3) Ensure Onsite Safety Personnel are Prioritizing Heat Hazards

A heat safety plan is only effective if it’s implemented and practice drills are performed periodically. That’s where the company’s leadership must take charge. This starts with top-level management, but every link in the leadership chain, down to onsite safety and medical personnel should be on the same page regarding how to manage heat risks.

For example, when elevated temperatures are present, onsite medical personnel should regularly check worker vitals, including body temperature and pulse, to detect the early signs of heat illness. Safety personnel should also consider altering work practices when the heat and humidity is higher, such as rotating crews in and out of shade, enforcing water breaks and switching to light duty.

Maintaining safe conditions means being proactive, and this responsibility falls to the company’s management, and who it empowers to ensure safety.

4) Give Crews the Tools Needed to Monitor Temperatures

Safety planning and training are critical for reducing the risk of heat illness. Another important piece of the heat safety puzzle – investing in heat monitoring tools that workers can use in the field. After all, your field workers deal with the worst effects of heat exposure, so empowering them with better information can save lives. Even better, many of these resources are simple to use and inexpensive to invest in.

For example, many contractors provide their workers with TWIC cards that house liquid crystal thermometers that use thermochromic liquid crystals (TLCs) to measure heat levels. When exposed to heat, TLCs alter their orientation and physical structure – which also changes their optical qualities. In other words, TLCs change color with changing temperatures, and TWIC cards can be designed with microencapsulated pockets of these TLCs, so workers have a reliable, simple-to-use thermometer always on hand.

TWIC cards are inexpensive per unit and are extremely cost effective when purchased in volume. Contractors can therefore outfit their entire crew with temperature-taking equipment and safeguard them, without stressing the project’s budget.

5) Give Crews the Resources They Need to Treat Heat Illness

With heat illness, the best defense is preparation. That means preparing work crews for what to do if a heat-related emergency does occur. That includes the following:

  • Setting up a “cooldown area” that has shade and fluids for workers to drink. If a worker starts showing signs of heat exhaustion, they can stay out of the sun and rest here. Consider adding fans to circulate air through the area.
  • Identifying all sources of running water at the job site and ensuring this water can be accessed if a worker does experience heat illness.
  • Keeping a modest store of emergency heat illness supplies on hand, including towels, electrolyte tablets and ice packs.
  • Drilling workers on what to do if someone gives in to heat stress. This includes applying cold packs or water to the affected worker, contacting emergency personnel right away, and moving the person to a cooler environment.

By preparing for the worst-case scenario, workers can respond appropriately when heat illness occurs and potentially avoid a fatal outcome.

Heat Illnesses Can Cause Serious, Even Fatal Injury, So Provide the Tools Necessary to Keep Your Crews Safe

Heat can be a killer, and at some projects sites it’s also impossible to avoid. However, there are plenty of ways that contractors and work teams can mitigate the risk of heat illness.

Much of this boils down to preparedness, as heat illnesses can be treated and reversed with prompt action. As such, it’s important for contractors to have safety measures in place to respond when heat exhaustion or stroke does occur. And it’s also important for workers to have the temperature-taking tools they need to keep a close eye on heat levels. In this way, everyone from top leadership to field workers can remain safe and aware of the heat.