Why Heat Related Workplace Injuries Need to be a Top Priority to Occupational Health and Safety Managers

Heat related workplace injuries are a threat to employees in a number of heavy-duty industries, including:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Oil and gas
  • Transportation
  • Warehousing
  • Food processing
  • Mining
  • Agriculture
  • Firefighting

Workers in these industries are at elevated risk of developing heat illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, elevating the need for safety measures being implemented for workplace injury protection. Occupational health and safety managers are responsible for implementing this heat-related protection, and there are proven methods for doing so. Here, we’ve included four ways occupational safety managers can make heat injury prevention a priority for their workplaces.

Heat Hazards in the Workplace: By the Numbers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is responsible for tracking workplace injuries, including heat related injuries. According to its 2011-2020 data, there were 33,890 heat injuries severe enough to result in missed work time. That’s an average of just under 3,400 heat-related illnesses in the workplace annually. The BLS’s fatal occupational injury census also estimates that between 1992 and 2021, 999 workers died due to environmental heat exposure. That’s an average of 33 fatalities every year.

However, the BLS data is believed to vastly underestimate the real problem due to the following factors:

  • Limitations in employee and employer reported data
  • Different interpretations of what constitutes a heat injury by medical personnel
  • Unreported health conditions that may have been exacerbated by heat exposure
  • Latent, late-onset symptoms caused by the heat illness
  • A large variance in heat illness symptoms and their influence on decision making

Together, these factors make it impossible to accurately gauge heat risks, and it’s likely that the number of heat injuries and illnesses is higher than reported.

Four Things Occupational Safety Managers Can Do to Make Heat Illnesses a Priority

Thousands of workers are injured every year by excessive heat exposure and dozens are killed. For businesses operating in high-risk industries, heat safety can be a matter of life and death. Here’s what employers can do to protect their workers from heat-related illness:

1) Establish a heat-specific safety plan

Employers are not required to author a safety plan, but they do help with regulatory compliance and are therefore highly recommended. A heat-specific safety plan goes a step further and prioritizes heat injury prevention.

Your heat safety plan should include the following:

  • Documentation that identifies the location and nature of all heat hazards. This could be a list, a diagram, a floor plan, or other supporting documentation
  • An inventory of all heat related medical supplies and their location
  • A list of emergency procedures should a worker develop heat illness
  • Contact information for a nearby medical facility
  • The names and contact information for everyone responsible for enforcing the safety plan

Your company’s heat safety plan is a primary safety training resource. As such, it should be used by managers to enforce heat illness prevention efforts and ensure all workers abide by them.

2) Make heat safety a priority with your safety signage

Heat safety is a matter of vigilance. It’s important for workers to always be prepared when environmental heat has reached unsafe levels or when exertion may cause unsafe conditions. To ensure your employees are always ready, consider investing in additional safety signage. Employers are required to point out potential workplace hazards, and safety signage is a proven way to do this.

Occupational safety signage can be customized for heat hazards and used to point out where workers are at a high risk of heat exposure. For example, such signage would be a good fit near:

  • Ovens
  • Furnaces
  • Foundries
  • Boiler rooms
  • Interior areas where sunlight is present
  • Areas where high exertion work is present

By placing heat safety signage near these areas, occupational health and safety managers can ensure their employees are on alert around high-risk areas.

3) Equip your workers with heat safety resources

Employees should have easy access to cooling stations that supply water, shade, air conditioning and rest. If a worker is affected by heat stress, moving them to one of these cooling stations is recommended for a rapid first line of treatment. Workers should also be given regular breaks where they can recover at a cooling station.

In addition to well-stocked cooling stations, occupational safety managers can protect their workers by providing them with valuable information. As the temperature and workplace conditions change, it’s important for workers to identify these changes as soon as they occur. One way to do this is to supply employees with temperature-taking tools like liquid crystal thermometers (LCTs). LCTs are light, easy to use and provide an accurate temperature reading within seconds. LCTs can also be integrated into employee TWIC cards, so workers can put them in an open toolbox, wear then on lanyards, or carry them in a pocket. In seconds, workers can get an accurate reading of current workplace conditions and adjust accordingly.

4) Train employees to recognize and respond to the signs of heat illness

No matter what heat safety measures your company has in place, your workers must be ready to respond to heat illness when it emerges. That means knowing the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Those symptoms include:

  • Excessive sweating or complete lack of it
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Elevated body temperature

If any signs of heat illness are present, your workers should have an emergency action plan (EAP) that kicks in immediately. Your EAP should specify any emergency response measures, point out the location of any emergency medical supplies, dictate where workers are to receive medical attention and who should be notified in the event of a heat related emergency.

Before beginning work in any hazardous environment, employees should be trained on the company’s EAP and on the nature of heat illness. New workers should also have time to acclimate to workplace heat sources and the company’s heat safety processes.

Make Heat Related Workplace Injuries a Priority With Improved Safety Standards

Heat hazards are a threat to workers, and the consequences of excessive heat exposure can be fatal. Occupational health and safety managers are the most important line of defense against deadly heat hazards, but safety managers have measures they can take to protect employees. Developing a heat safety plan, installing safety signage, investing in heat safety resources and focused safety training can make the difference in shielding workers from deadly heat exposure on the job.