The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is the governing body overseeing the implementation of workplace safety measures. It organizes these measures through various regulations, all of which employers need to be concerned with. As of yet, OSHA does not have particular regulations in place for heat safety, but that doesn’t mean employers can slide on protective measures. OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to be aware of and remove recognizable hazards that are likely to cause serious harm or death to their workers. OSHA considers excessive heat, both environmental and labor-induced, to be among those recognizable hazards. As such, it is the employer’s responsibility to account for the heat and take the appropriate steps to neutralize its effects on employees.
OSHA may not have a regulation dedicated to heat safety, but it has published materials detailing how to best approach it. These materials should be of interest to any employer that wishes to maintain OSHA compliance regarding heat safety. OSHA recommends greater levels of awareness and intervention as the heat index climbs. The heat index takes into consideration both air temperature and relative humidity. As humidity rises, the body’s ability to wick off heat using sweat worsens, so it’s more difficult for workers to mitigate heat caused by labor. As air temperature and humidity rise, it is up to the employer to offset the increased danger with additional resources.
Some of the most important points of heat safety, from OSHA’s perspective, include:
- Provide workers with a shaded rest area – Once the heat index climbs above 90 degrees, heat illness becomes a real possibility. Lower heat indexes can also be a concern if the worker is outfitted with impermeable protective gear, including gear designed to protect against chemical or biological agents. As soon as the heat index passes the 90-degree threshold, or when workers are expected to don heavy, insulated gear, OSHA strongly recommends employers provide their employees with shaded rest areas. This area should be shaded at all times, so it should be comprehensive enough to keep the sun from intruding at any point of the day. It’s also best to set the rest area up where it will be unexposed to warm breezes, which can accelerate the onset of heat-related illnesses. A shaded tent is an example of an appropriate rest area. Its mobile design and contained environment is ideal for establishing a cool area, regardless of the location. Tents equipped with air conditioners or heavy-duty fans can offer the ideal base for workers in need of cooling.
- Provide workers with plenty of potable water – OSHA recommends water that is between 50 and 60 degrees, and between four and six cups of it every hour. Water consumption should begin before the worker notices thirst, as it may be too late to prevent dehydration once the worker becomes thirsty. There should always be drinking water available, so employers must have procedures in place to ensure supplies are replenished with regularity. Workers, and particularly workers who are new to working in the heat, should be encouraged regularly, and firmly, to drink plenty of water. Most incidences of occupational heat-related illnesses occur among inexperienced workers, as they may not be accustomed to working in the heat.
- Monitor workers continuously for signs of heat illness – When the heat index climbs above 90 degrees, supervisors should ensure that all heat safety measures are being observed. Shaded rest areas should be utilized, plenty of water should be consumed and other cooling methods taken advantage of. As the heat index climbs even higher, it is imperative that worksites have experts on heat-related illnesses available. These experts should be able to recognize the signs of heat illness right away and know how to administer first aid to workers experiencing symptoms. The expert should also recommend changes to work schedules in response to dangerous conditions. In short, there should be someone at the worksite who will ensure workers are safe and following protocols related to heat. At higher heat indexes, medical facilities should be available within minutes. If they aren’t, then it is the employer’s responsibility to have resources on hand to treat any heat illness that emerges. If the heat index climbs above 115 degrees, or if workers are fitted with heavy, insulated gear for long stretches of time, then additional, significant measures to prevent heat illness must be deployed. This includes physiologically monitoring workers, regularly checking their heart rate, temperature and other vitals that may indicate overheating. Workers should be acclimatized to an extreme environment like this prior to taking on a full workload.
- Provide cooling measures, for both preventative and curative situations – When the heat index passes 103 degrees, it’s important that employers consider personal cooling methods. This will protect workers who must remain in the sun for extended periods of time, and workers who cannot access rest areas as often. Personal cooling may be as simple as clothing that has been dampened with water, or something a bit more advanced, like misting stations. Reflective clothing and vests with cooling packs are also effective. If heat illness does appear, then immediate steps must be taken to prevent permanent injury (or death) to the worker. This includes rapid application of wet cloths, transport to a cooled room, administering fluids and immersion in an ice water bath. As this scenario may cause unconsciousness, it is critical that measures are in place to handle an unconscious person.
- Pair workers together while they are exposed to heat – The signs of heat illness can creep in slowly and may not be noticed before they become serious. Using a “buddy system” can help worksite managers detect heat illness faster, which may make the difference in keeping workers safe.
Heat-related illnesses are potentially deadly, and it is up to employers to neutralize hazards before they materialize. Adhering to OSHA recommendations will go a long way in doing this as they provide an excellent starting point.