Thermal threats are mounting at worksites around the country. Heat waves are increasing in intensity and duration, according to the World Health Organization, and this trend will likely continue, making a heat management system a must for worker safety.
Work crews are bearing the brunt of this extreme heat, leaving them exposed to potential heat illnesses that can cause permanent, even fatal injury.
A heat management system, when properly implemented, is designed to push back against this risk. There are numerous elements that may be included in a thermal management system, but the bottom line is that they provide workers with resources, processes and information that can prevent heat illness.
Here, we’ll address what an ideal heat management system typically includes and how it can support worker safety.
Why Heat Management Matters
Thermal stresses are largely dictated by ambient weather conditions. Temperature, relative humidity, sun exposure and wind speed are all important considerations. Weather, though, is only one factor. Thermal risks are also exacerbated by activity levels, the worker’s age and health, clothing or protective equipment, the presence of major heat sources (furnaces, for example), and other considerations.
With the above factors in play, there may be an elevated risk of heat illness even when ambient conditions aren’t a factor.
Regardless of where excess heat is coming from, if thermal dangers are present on your worksite, it’s time to develop a heat management system.
Heat illnesses range in severity – from minor heat rash, to heat syncope (brief loss of consciousness), and even life-threatening conditions like heat stroke. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dozens of workers are killed by heat illness every year and hundreds of thousands are injured. Given the nature of heat injury reporting and its nonspecific symptoms, it’s highly possible that these numbers are lower than reality.
Major and fatal injuries are typically the result of heat stroke. As the end stage form of heat illness, heat stroke can develop rapidly – seemingly out of nowhere in some cases – but it’s common for it to emerge and intensify over a short period of time. That means deadly heat illnesses can be prevented with the right precautions and treated with the right procedures. Determining what those precautions and procedures should look like – that’s the core of a heat management system.
What Should be Included in a Heat Management System?
Heat management systems are meant to be a comprehensive defense against thermal stresses. Here’s what that defense system should include:
- A heat specific safety plan – Employers are required to have safety plans in place to maintain OSHA compliance. These plans typically address all the worksite’s hazards in a general way, but on sites where heat hazards are commonplace, it’s worth developing a heat-specific safety plan.
A heat-specific plan points out the number, location and nature of heat hazards on the project site. This could be the location of heat sources or areas where poor air circulation or increased sun exposure may trigger heat illnesses.
A heat-specific safety plan will also designate who is responsible for enforcing heat safety protocols (and their contact information), as well as an inventory and location of all medical resources dedicated to treating heat illness. Contact information for a nearby medical facility should also be included in such a plan.
- Medical monitoring – Medical monitoring includes health screening prior to starting work on a project, and periodic checks thereafter. The goal of medical monitoring is to identify workers who may be at an elevated risk of heat illness. Safety countermeasures can be taken in response to this information.
On worksites where heat risks are elevated, continuous medical monitoring (watching worker vitals) may be necessary.
- An emergency action plan (EAP) – An EAP is required by OSHA on hazardous worksites and details what to do in the event of an emergency. EAPs are used to detail all potential hazards on a worksite, including heat emergencies. In this context, an EAP will dictate how to immediately respond to severe heat illness, what resources to use, and how to treat the condition until medical assistance can be secured – as well as how to seek medical assistance from a nearby medical facility.
- Information resources – Information resources include occupational safety signage and heat monitoring tools. Safety signage and decals are excellent, ever-present reminders to take note of heat hazards and to take proper measures (like drinking enough fluids) to avoid heat illness.
Monitoring heat levels is also critical, as ambient conditions can cross into dangerous territory gradually, often leaving workers caught unaware.
One way to prevent this from happening is to equip workers with temperature monitoring tools they can easily and reliably use. A popular option is to provide field workers with liquid crystal thermometers (LCTs), as these can be embedded in a TWIC-style card. LCTs are accurate within a couple of degrees and can provide a reading within seconds. As TWIC cards are practically weightless and are easy to carry (using a lanyard or just placed in a toolbox), they are an ideal choice for busy workers who cannot leave their station.
- Engineering controls – Engineering controls are used to mitigate the intensity of heat hazards or to help workers manage their effects. For example, providing cool, potable water at cooling stations, setting up fans or air conditioning, providing shade and reducing worker exertion by providing powered equipment (a forklift, for example) are all ways to reduce heat’s impact.
Employee Education and Acclimatization are also Important Factors of Heat Safety
The majority of severe heat illnesses occur in new workers. There may be several reasons for this, but it’s common for new workers to push themselves harder at first because they aren’t aware of heat dangers – or want to demonstrate their value to the team.
Given this fact, more employers are prioritizing acclimatization and safety education when bringing on new workers. Here’s what each includes:
- Safety education – When a heat safety plan is modified or when new workers are brought on, it’s time to educate. Specifically, education on what the company’s heat safety policies are, what heat illness symptoms to look for, what to do in the event of a heat emergency, what safety resources are available, and how to use those resources. The goal is preparedness, so workers are ready if a heat emergency does occur.
- Acclimatization – During the acclimatization process, new workers are required to slowly ramp up their activity over several days. A standard approach is to shorten work shifts for the first couple weeks of the project and to give new workers additional breaks to recover from heat exposure.
During this time, the worker should be closely monitored for any signs of vulnerability to heat illness, and to ensure they follow proper heat safety protocols.
If Properly Designed and Implemented, a Heat Management System Can Save Lives
Heat is one of the most difficult hazards to avoid. During some parts of the year, heat is literally everywhere and often intense enough to cause serious illness if not accounted for.
Employers can protect their workers by investing in a thermal heat management system. By ensuring the right planning, equipment, and resources are in place, your work crews will always be aware and ready for extreme heat.