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.