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The Heat Is On: Protect Employees From Heat-Related Illness

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), thousands of U.S. workers get sick from excessive heat exposure while working outdoors each year. More than 30 workers died in 2012 from heat-related illnesses.

Although OSHA does not have a heat illness prevention standard, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), known as the General Duty Clause, requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. That includes protecting them from heat stroke and other serious heat-related illnesses. Of the states running their own safety programs under agreements with OSHA, only California and Washington currently have heat-related illness prevention standards. However, other states have general duty clauses in their statutes that may be invoked to address these issues.

The dangers associated with excessive heat exposure are real. Employers should evaluate conditions at their worksites and take steps to prevent heat-related illness among their workers, especially in industries where employees frequently work outside. In 2013, OSHA issued 11 citations related to employees’ and temporary workers’ exposure to heat illness, and it has indicated that it will continue to focus on this issue for inspections in 2014. As such, employers would be wise to develop and implement written procedures that discuss access to water and shade; breaks; acclimatization; weather monitoring; employee and supervisor training; and responding to symptoms of possible heat illness.

In evaluating worksite conditions, employers should keep in mind that employees who are required to engage in intense or continuous physical exertion, or who are exposed to high temperatures and humidity or direct sunlight, may be susceptible to heat-related illness. Employees who are required to wear heavy or bulky protective clothing or equipment also may be susceptible. In addition, employees who have not previously worked outdoors in high temperature conditions generally are more at risk because they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions.

Two of the most serious heat-related illnesses are heat stroke and heat exhaustion, both of which could result in death or hospitalization.

  • Heat stroke occurs when the body’s way of cooling itself fails and body temperature rises above 104 degrees. The signs and symptoms of heat stroke are a high body temperature, red or hot skin, confusion fainting or convulsions. If a worker is experiencing heat stroke, employers should call 911 and move the worker to a shady or cool area immediately. Employers also should remove as much of the affected worker’s clothing as possible and attempt to cool down the worker by placing cold, wet towels or ice over the body.
  • Heat exhaustion occurs when the body temperature rises above 100.4 degrees. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst and heavy sweating. If a worker is experiencing heat exhaustion, employers should move the worker to a shady or cool area immediately. Employers also should remove the affected worker’s shoes, socks and other unnecessary clothing; apply a cold compress to the head, neck and face; and give the worker cool water to drink. If symptoms persist or get worse, call 911.

OSHA suggests that employers consider implementing some of the following measures to reduce heat-related illness among their employees.

  • Allow workers to get used to heat conditions by gradually increasing exposure over a five-day work period (known as acclimatization) and by implementing more frequent breaks during the first week of work in those conditions.
  • Develop a work/rest regiment that establishes how often and when breaks will be taken.
  • Provide air-conditioned or shaded areas close to the work area and schedule frequent rest breaks.
  • Provide workers with plenty of cool potable drinking water in convenient, visible locations close to the work area.
  • Encourage and remind workers to drink water about every 15 minutes (before they become thirsty).
  • Monitor weather reports daily and reschedule jobs with high heat exposure to cooler times of the day, if possible.
  • Encourage employees to wear (or provide employees with) light-colored and permeable clothing.
  • Monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat exposure and encourage employees to report symptoms of any heat-related illnesses.
  • Train workers and supervisors about the environmental and personal risk factors that may lead to heat stress and the methods to prevent such illness.
  • Train workers and supervisors on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of excessive heat exposure, such as headaches, dizziness, fainting, collapsing, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, nausea or vomiting.
  • Have workers partner up with each other and watch out for signs of heat-related illness in their coworkers.
  • Establish procedures for reporting signs and symptoms of heat illness.
  • Implement an emergency response plan and educate all employees on what to do if someone is experiencing symptoms of a heat-related illness.

By limiting employees’ time in the heat and implementing these safe work practices, employers can help prevent heat-related illness and reduce the chances of receiving a General Duty Clause citation.

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