When employees face the challenge of working outdoors in the heat of summer, or even in intense indoor heat conditions, it is critical to have guidelines in place to prevent and manage heat-related illness. When temperatures soar, the body might not be able to cool itself enough through perspiring. When this happens, the temperature of the body can rise dramatically and lead to heat-related illness.
Working in the heat also can lower mental alertness, physical performance, and increase emotional volatility, all of which can lead to a higher frequency of workplace accidents. Each year in the U.S., tens of workers die and hundreds of others experience heat-related occupational injuries and illnesses requiring days off work.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that companies take the following preventive steps to protect employees from the hazards of working in the heat:
- Train all workers to recognize the signs of heat stress, which include headache, dizziness, nausea, irritability and confusion, and vomiting and muscle aches or cramps. Workers should also be trained to administer appropriate first aid when heat related illness is suspected. Supervisors should have special training to detect the early warning signs, and have the authority to allow workers to break from their work if they are becoming uncomfortable in the heat.
- Supervisors should be aware of the physical condition of each employee, and understand if they are fit to work in extreme temperature conditions. Obesity, pregnancy, certain medications, advanced age, and lack of conditioning are conditions that can put a worker at greater risk for a heat-related illness.
- Since disorientation, confusion, and even loss of consciousness are symptoms of some heat-related illnesses, jobs should be designed so that employees can work in pairs to look out for one another.
- The body needs time to condition itself to new levels of heat intensity. Help your workers adapt to the heat by altering the workload, including extended rest periods for the first several days. If an employee returns from any kind of job absence, including a vacation, their body will again need time to be reconditioned.
- Emphasize that employees should drink plenty of water, even if they do not feel thirsty. Remember that alcohol, coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas can actually dehydrate the body and should be avoided.
- Workers should be encouraged to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and to change their clothing if it becomes saturated.
- Because good airflow helps cool the skin by increasing evaporation, use general ventilation and spot cooling during times of high heat production.
- Alternate short work periods with rest periods in a cooler area and schedule heavy work for cooler times of the day.
- On an hourly basis, monitor temperatures, humidity, and your workers’ responses to heat.
OSHA has created a free, fold-up laminated card with information and tips related to heat stress. The OSHA Heat Stress Card is available in English and Spanish. For more information, visit www.osha.gov.