Why Heat Awareness is Essential for Occupational Safety Managers

Heat-related deaths are reaching new heights in the U.S., in part due to rising temperatures. Intense heat exposure also threatens workers, but they have more to contend with than environmental heat. Exertion-related heat should be considered, as well as heavy work clothing.

For occupational safety managers, these factors must be accounted for, as they can add up to serious heat illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

When Temperatures Rise, Heat Awareness Should As Well

Many work settings can be characterized as a thermal energy-rich environment. Construction sites, manufacturing facilities, outdoor warehouses and quarries are just a few examples of such worksites, but excess heat exposure can occur anywhere – even in office buildings.

Wherever heat hazards do emerge, heat illnesses are sure to follow if safety managers don’t take the proper precautions. These illnesses can manifest in one of several forms – heat rash is an example. For safety managers, though, the principal concerns are heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion and stroke share many of the same symptoms, including mental symptoms such as confusion, altered mood, slurred speech, dizziness, or loss of consciousness. Both heat illnesses require immediate intervention, but heat stroke is a medical emergency that can leave workers permanently, perhaps fatally injured.

Heat Stress is Dangerous for Workers and Costly for Companies

Dozens of workers are killed by excess occupational heat every year, and thousands more are injured. The human cost of lax heat safety measures is severe, even when taking fatalities out of the equation.

Heat-related injuries can leave workers unable to recapture their prior productivity. According to the World Health Organization, about 2 percent of all working hours every year are lost due to heat stress – a huge bite that makes heat one of the country’s biggest productivity sieves.

For employers, protecting worker health is of paramount importance. What’s also important is ensuring production benchmarks are hit. Heat hazards can get in the way of that, but occupational safety managers can mitigate heat dangers if they maintain awareness of heat hazards and implement safety measures to mitigate them.

How Occupational Safety Managers Can Protect Employees from Heat-related Injury

Heat is dangerous, in part, because it is insidious. It slowly increases in intensity until it’s enough to overtake workers. The only way to protect against this subtle, creeping danger is with vigilance. If everyone at the worksite, including safety managers, are committed to spotting and mitigating heat risks, then it will be easier to protect employees – and easier to respond to a heat emergency if one does arise.

Occupational safety managers are largely responsible for establishing heat awareness and establishing risk-reduction initiatives. Such initiatives may include:

  • Developing a heat-specific safety plan – OSHA requires employers to have a site safety plan that addresses all risks at the worksite. This general safety plan is designed to cover all hazards, but there’s nothing stopping employers from developing hazard-specific safety plans to better mitigate the most prevalent or dangerous concerns.

    At worksites where heat exposure is an ever-present threat, a heat-specific safety plan makes sense. Inside a heat-specific plan, safety managers can identify where heat hazards are the most severe and what managers can do to protect against them. This includes pointing out vital resources (first aid stations, showers, etc.), splitting workers and safety managers into working groups for accountability purposes, and listing out emergency procedures should a worker experience heat illness.

  • Organizing heat safety training prior to the project’s start – Safety managers are responsible for keeping all employees and supervisory personnel on the same page regarding safety. This is also true of heat safety, and the best way to ensure this preparedness is with adequate pre-project training.

    Heat training doesn’t need to be complicated or last long – it merely needs to reinforce heat risk mitigation procedures. The value here is boosting heat awareness among workers and managers so everyone is prepared in the event of an emergency.

  • Assessing risk on a worker-by-worker basis – People respond to heat exposure differently, and this varied response should be accounted for so the most vulnerable workers can be properly protected.

    Age, fitness level, overall health, experience, and role all factor into a worker’s vulnerability to heat. Prior to beginning work, these factors should be taken into consideration for each worker, so safety-first work rotations and break patterns can be established.

  • Acclimating workers during the project’s early phases – The majority of heat-related worker deaths and injuries occur in the first couple weeks of a project’s start. If employees aren’t given time to adjust to hot conditions, they are far more likely to be overwhelmed by the heat. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that safety managers slowly ramp up work activity over several days, giving workers plenty of breaks and limiting exertion during this period.
  • Ensuring workers have heat monitoring resources on them – One of the best ways to ensure workplace safety is to give workers access to temperature taking tools. As the people on the front lines against the heat, it’s critical that workers be able to remain aware of dangerous heat indexes.

    An inexpensive and reliable way to do this is with a liquid crystal thermometer (LCT). LCTs are accurate within a degree or two and can be embedded in a simple TWIC card for maximum usability. Within seconds, workers can get an updated look at ambient temperatures and take steps to protect themselves from dangerous levels of heat and humidity.

  • Prioritizing heat-related first aid resources – Safety managers are responsible for maintaining adequate first aid resources onsite, and at worksites where heat hazards are present, heat injury supplies should also be present. This includes the basics, such as cold compresses, ice packs and running water. Also consider electrolyte tablets for severe dehydration cases.

    These supplies should be easily accessed by work crews and their location marked in the heat safety plan for quick reference.

Heat Awareness is Imperative for Workplace Safety

Heat is an ever-present killer during the summer months, so occupational safety managers need to remain on their guard. They also need to remain aware of heat hazards on their worksites. And beyond awareness, safety managers must be ready to respond to heat illnesses, with adequate emergency resources and to-the-minute information provided by temperature-taking tools.

A Guide to Protecting Work Crews from the Summer Heat

As numerous heat records were shattered across the U.S. in the summer of 2023, it meant that people working outside were at major risk of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat illness is an invisible, but quite capable killer that’s caused dozens of fatalities and thousands of injuries over the past several years. And it is believed that those numbers are vastly underreported, as many heat-related illnesses and deaths fall outside the purview of government regulators.

Employers are responsible for protecting their crews from heat hazards, and these protective measures must be reinforced at every level of the organization. In this guide, we’ll address what steps contractors can take to safeguard the health of their crews.

Judging Heat Conditions on Site: Don’t Focus Only on the Temperature

Elevated temperatures are an obvious heat-related danger, and as such, it’s important for supervisors to keep an eye on the thermometer. But there’s more to heat risk than temperature alone, as humidity, solar exposure, and wind speed all play a role as well.

For example, heat index values factor humidity into the equation and is therefore a useful alternative to temperature alone along the Gulf Coast, where high levels of summer humidity are expected.

Some contractors now use the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) – a metric utilized by the U.S. military for decades – that also factors in solar exposure and wind speed. In other words, WBGT is most relevant for people working in direct sunlight.

As actual, on-the-ground heat dangers vary with humidity, sun exposure and other factors, it’s recommended that contractors use heat index values to assess field conditions.

What Does OSHA Have to Say About Heat Safety?

OSHA doesn’t have heat-specific safety regulations on the books, but employers are still held to the General Duty Clause, which requires companies to identify and protect workers from any onsite hazards.

Employers can’t use “but there’s no OSHA heat safety standard” as an excuse, in other words.

The agency does have plenty of heat safety resources to draw from, though, including informational literature and tips for employers. This includes guidance on every part of the safety planning process, which can be extremely helpful for new contractors that don’t have an emergency action plan (EAP) in place.

Here are some practical tips for mitigating dangerous summer temperatures for every phase of the project.

Before the job begins: Create a Heat Safety Plan and Raise Awareness of Heat Hazards

Before mobilization, contractors should have a firm idea of the jobsite’s layout and where heat hazards are likely to emerge. For instance, if there’s a part of the site that’s exposed to dawn-to-dusk sunlight, it may be a good idea to avoid setting up any workstations in that area.

This is the kind of thinking that should be included in the project’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). In fact, some contractors go a step further and draft a heat-specific safety plan. Given the extreme temperatures affecting some parts of the country (the south and southeast, most notably), heat-specific plans make a lot of sense. Each EAP should include the following:

  • The location and nature of any heat hazards on the jobsite. While trapped heat is usually a problem for interior work areas only, they can emerge on construction sites and other exterior work environments as well.
  • The location of any cooling stations or any air-conditioned areas. If heat illness does occur, moving the affected worker to a cool spot with shade is critical.
  • An inventory and location of all heat injury resources, such as cold packs, towels, and fluids.
  • A set of processes that specify what to do and who to contact should someone come down with heat illness.
  • The contact information for any nearby emergency medical institutions.

Once this plan is established, it must be communicated to all levels of leadership and to the workers themselves. Ideally, leadership and the crew would be involved in helping put together a heat safety plan. This will ensure that everyone on the team has a clear understanding of the company’s heat safety policies. Regular training, toolbox talks, and unscheduled drills are all worthy investments to ensure maximum heat safety awareness.

This training should also address what signs and symptoms of heat illness to look for, as other workers are likely to spot them first in their coworkers. They include:

  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Headache and muscle pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

Invest in Tools That Monitor Heat Levels

If your workers can keep an eye on the temperature, they’ll be more aware of the heat and more likely to observe heat safety protocols.

The right tools are essential for jobsite safety, and when it comes to heat-related dangers, one such tool is a liquid crystal thermometer, as LCTs are compact, lightweight, and offer instant information about the temperature. LCTs can be encapsulated and scaled down to fit inside TWIC cards, which can be worn on a lanyard, kept in a pocket, or tossed in the toolbox. LCTs are accurate and can also include the company’s branding or additional heat safety information.

In this way, LCTs offer double advantages in safety and cost effectiveness, as they’re inexpensive to procure at volume and give workers a highly usable tool for remaining aware of the heat.

Get Workers Acclimated to the Heat and Set Up a Cooling Station

According to OSHA, about 75 percent of all heat-related deaths occur in the first week of the job. It takes time for the body to adjust to extreme heat stress, especially for people who aren’t accustomed to the climate or strenuous activity. To avoid overloading the team early on, OSHA recommends the 20 percent rule. The idea behind this is to slowly work up to full capacity in the sun over several days.

Assuming an 8-hour workday, using the 20 percent rule, workers should only spend one hour and 40 minutes (20 percent) in the sun during their first day on the project. They can spend the rest of the day working without heat stress. Every subsequent day, add another 20 percent in the sun until they’re up to full capacity. Some workers may need a bit longer to adjust, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, so allow for that time for adequate acclimation.

At the project’s outset, this is also the time to establish a cooling station. It should remain in the shade throughout the day and always have water available. Some contractors set up tents with circulating fans for additional heat relief, and if there’s an air-conditioned room they can access while cooling, even better.

Keep Safety Personnel on High Alert, Encourage Regular Breaks and Reduce Work Intensity in High Heat

During the peak of summer, there may be no relief from dangerously hot days. Where possible, shifting work to the evening or night hours is recommended, but noise ordinances may prevent this.

When work must be done during the day, being proactive is the rule. That means doing the following:

  • Enforcing regular water breaks. During high activity periods, giving workers a break every 15 minutes to drink fluids is recommended. Stick to water rather than caffeinated beverages.
  • Cycling work teams out of the sun regularly. If possible, cycling workers between sun-exposed and shaded workstations can reduce heat stress.
  • Occasionally taking worker vitals to spot early signs of heat stress. This should only be done by trained medical personnel.
  • Keeping the contact information for any medical authorities in an easily accessible place, so it can be instantly referenced in an emergency.

In general, the point is to remain on high alert while heat indexes are at their most punishing. The faster everyone responds to severe heat illness, the better the affected worker’s chances of fully recovering.

Summer Heat Can Be Fatal, but Employers Can Keep Their Team Safe with the Right Protective Measures

While summers have always been hot, recent summers have produced deadly levels of heat. For work crews, heat illnesses can emerge suddenly and may be severe, if not deadly. But with effective planning, emergency resources, cooling equipment, and a commitment to heat awareness, employers can keep their project sites and workers safe and heat injury free.