Why Heat Awareness Still Matters in Winter

Why Heat Awareness Still Matters in the Winter

Many workers are still exposed to heat risks during the winter, even when temperatures are plummeting outside. That’s because indoor workers may labor in high-heat environments fraught with potential hazards, which is why heat awareness still matters in winter.

Employers are responsible for identifying risks on the job and protecting employees from them. This includes putting together a heat safety plan, adequately training workers on that plan, and providing workers with the resources they need to protect themselves, regardless of the season.

Which Workers are at Risk of Heat Illness During the Winter?

Some indoor work environments put workers at a high risk of heat illness year-round. Some of those industries include:

  • Bakeries and commercial kitchens
  • Manufacturing centers with intense heat sources, such as concrete plants
  • Iron and steel foundries
  • Facilities with boiler rooms – such as electrical utility stations
  • Commercial laundries
  • Warehouses

Workers in these environments require additional protections from heat hazards, even during the winter. Consider this – the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined that, from 2011 to 2018, of the 20 workers who died of heat exposure, eight of them were indoor workers. Winter weather or not, indoor heat risks persist through the season.

Common Causes of Indoor Heat Exposure

Many employers make the mistake of assuming that because their workers are inside, they are shielded from extreme temperatures. But this isn’t always the case. Indoor workers may still be affected by excessive heat due to the following:

  • Intense local heat sources – Furnaces and ovens can output intense blasts of heat and create pockets of dangerous thermal activity. Bakeries, food processing centers and foundries are examples. In these settings, focusing temperature sensors and safety efforts near high-thermal zones makes sense.
  • Heavy exertion – Extended heavy exertion can raise a worker’s body temperature to dangerous levels, even during the winter. Employers cannot assume that low ambient air temperatures are enough to protect workers engaged in heavy duty work. This is especially true for new workers who haven’t had time to adjust.
  • Protective wear and equipment – Protective clothing and equipment (PPE) reduces air flow to the worker’s skin. As such, people wearing PPE are at risk of heat illness when exerting themselves. External heat sources may worsen the effects of PPE.
  • Insufficient or inefficient cooling technology – Poor air circulation and insufficient cooling are common causes of indoor overheating. It’s important to verify that your facility’s HVAC technology can handle the heating load that your workers and equipment generate. Regular maintenance is also essential and is considered part of an employer’s general duty to their employees.

When indoor workers experience heat illness – heat exhaustion and heat stroke, for example – the above factors are typically present.

Federal and State Safety Standards for Occupational Heat Hazards

Federal and state agencies recognize the potential for heat illness during the winter. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general duty clause requires employers to provide a work environment that is free of hazards that could cause serious or fatal injury. This extends to hazards that could cause heat illness.

Some states have implemented additional heat hazard provisions to protect workers. Those states include:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Minnesota (with specific provisions for indoor heat safety)
  • Oregon
  • Washington

This demonstrates that heat awareness still matters in the winter for employers.

How to Protect Workers from Heat Illnesses During the Winter

Heat is an invisible killer, but there are clear steps that employers can take to prevent heat from threatening employees. Those steps include:

  • Developing a heat-specific safety plan – OSHA does not require employers to have a detailed safety plan in writing, but it does require all employers and managers to be aware of potential workplace hazards. So even though it isn’t required, developing a heat safety plan can help organize your company’s safety efforts and protect your crew. If heat exposure is a risk to your indoor workers, a heat-specific safety plan will ensure no heat hazard is left unchecked. Your plan should identify all potential heat hazards in the work environment and specify measures to protect people from them. Further, your plan should name who is accountable for enforcing those measures.This plan will serve as the foundation for your heat safety processes. It will also be used to train workers.
  • Training employees on heat safety protocols – Once your company has established a heat safety plan, you will need to communicate the plan to workers. Set aside time to train workers on heat risks as this will encourage employees to take ownership of their own safety and the safety of others.
  • Acclimating new employees – Workers who haven’t had time to adjust are more likely to experience heat illness. Most occupational heat-related deaths involve people who have only been on the job for a short time. As such, it is extremely important for employers to give new workers a chance to acclimate to elevated temperatures. This includes gradually scaling up the length of work shifts, providing additional breaks and closely monitoring new workers for any signs of heat illness. Free access to water and cooling stations are also critical.
  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat illness – Although heat illness can emerge suddenly, there is usually a short window during which it can be treated before it becomes an emergency. However, your workers and managers must be familiar with the signs and symptoms of heat illness to act. Heat exhaustion is characterized by excessive sweating, cold or clammy skin, weakness, fatigue, confusion, nausea, vomiting, a weak pulse, headaches and dizziness. Heat stroke presents with red and dry skin, body temperature in excess of 103 degrees, a strong pulse, profound confusion and dizziness, slurred speech and loss of consciousness. The goal for managers and coworkers is to notice when a worker may be affected by minor heat injuries. When detected, removing workers for prompt treatment is critical. Vigilance saves lives.
  • Monitoring indoor temperatures and work conditions – Being proactive is important if heat is a threat. Work conditions can change rapidly and become hazardous before anyone realizes it, especially if there aren’t heat monitoring resources in place. Temperature-tracking tools can alert safety personnel to potentially dangerous conditions indoors. Temperature sensors should be placed near known heat sources and used to determine when heat levels are unsafe. For optimal safety, empower workers to track temperatures on their own. A simple and cost-effective way to do this is with TWIC cards embedded with liquid crystal thermometers (LCTs). LCTs provide a quick, accurate temperature reading. TWIC cards are inexpensive, lightweight, and can give workers advance notice of elevated temperatures before safety personnel need to intervene. This can give your workers the advantage in identifying dangerous conditions before they cause heat illness.

The above measures will improve your team’s ability to respond to heat-related emergencies before they cause serious or fatal injury. Or, even better, prevent those emergencies from happening in the first place.

Heat Awareness Still Matters in Winter, So Keep Your Crews Prepared

Excessive heat can cause serious injury or death, even during the winter. As such, employers are required – as per OSHA’s general duty clause – to put heat safety measures in place. Fortunately, these measures are simple and inexpensive to implement. They include devising a heat-specific safety plan, raising heat awareness among workers, and investing in safety resources like LCTs and other temperature monitoring tools.