Heat illness is a serious medical condition that can result in muscle cramping, loss of consciousness and even death in some extreme cases. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has estimated that thousands of workers become sick due to exposure to heat every year.
Heat awareness is especially crucial this year as a number of states, including California, are already experiencing historically high temperatures. Early spring saw parts of that state experiencing mid-80 and low-90 degree Fahrenheit temperature ranges, which is usually not seen until later in the summer. As The Californian reported, the California Department of Industrial Relations and CAL/OSHA are using the cooler days of April to encourage employers to prepare for protecting workers from heat exposure.
Speaking with The Californian, Cal/OSHA spokesman Peter Melton explained that state officials have been particularly vigilant about heat-related illness after a female field worker died following severe overheating in 2005. In that year, the state issued emergency orders for employers to protect workers from sun and heat, but the agency still encourages employers to follow those practices.
"We have continued that campaign ever since, and what it comes down to is outreach, education, consultation services," Melton explained.
California is not the only state that will experience high temperatures this spring and summer. Workers and employers in several other locations can benefit from following the safety tips outlined in CAL/OSHA's safety guidelines. These include:
- Providing plenty of water: Each employee should have access to at least a quart of water per hour and employers should encourage workers to stay hydrated.
- Ensuring shade: Work sites should include areas of shade where workers can rest. If there is not natural shade, employers can put up tents or other coverings.
- Safety training: Outdoor workers should be taught to recognize the signs of heat illness in themselves and others.
- Monitoring: All workers should watch for signs of heat illness when temperatures are high, and employees reporting heat-related sickness should not be left alone.
In addition to following these guidelines as best practices, employers need to be in compliance with specific standards that govern their industry or state.
Following heat-exposure regulations
All employers in the U.S. will need to comply with the federal OSHA standards that relate to heat exposure. While there is not a specific standard for working in hot environments, there are several relevant regulations employers must consult. These include the Personal Protective Equipment standard, Sanitation standards, Medical Services and First Aid standards and the Safety Training and Education standard for the construction industry. There are also 28 OSHA-approved state standards on heat exposure.
"There is no specific standard on heat exposure, but employers must consult relevant regulations."
OSHA also provides guidelines to employers on how to better protect workers from heat illness, including a guide to understanding the heat index. As OSHA explained, the risk of heat-related illness becomes greater with both increased temperature and increased humidity. The heat index measures both these factors and is better than air temperature alone for predicting the risks workers face.
OSHA also provides clarification on how to adjust the use personal protection equipment to maintain compliance while accounting for heat exposure, as some types of PPEs, such as hard hats, may contribute to heat exhaustion. The agency has provided industry specific resources as well.
It's crucial to remember that workers in outdoor environments face the greatest risk, and the rate of heat-related illness is highest for new workers. A CAL/OSHA study found that around half the number of incidents related to heat-exposure happened on the employee's first day on the site, and 80 percent happened within the first few days. It's important to recognize that heat illness may manifest as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, but both are serious medical conditions. OSHA also offers simple training materials that employers can utilize for training workers to recognize heat-related illness.
The importance of hydration
As Safety + Health magazine reported, proper hydration remains one of the best tools for preventing heat-related illness. Both heat and strenuous labor deplete the body's hydration levels, which can lead to thirst, fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness or confusion. All these conditions may contribute to accidents at the job site. If left unaddressed, dehydration can contribute to heat rash, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
The magazine noted general best practice suggest providing workers with one quart of water per hour, but some workers may need more. Certain factors can increase the risk for dehydration. These include:
- Underlying health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease
- Higher levels of physical exertion
- Air temperature
- Radiant heat from machinery
Employers can encourage workers to drink more water by providing time for water breaks, during which water can be drank slowly, Safety + Health suggested. Workers may also be outfitted in PPE that helps them to cool. Employers may also consider outfitting workers with hydration packs or reusable water bottles or mandating water breaks.