Preventing heat-related illnesses in the workplace

High-heat conditions can be dangerous for workers on-site.

High-heat conditions can be dangerous for workers on-site.

During times of intense heat, workers can be at serious risk of illness, over-exhaustion and potentially even death. As summer temperatures soar, employees who work outdoors are especially susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Similarly, workers in indoor environments that require high temperatures can also fall victim to excess heat exposure, which is why employers should take steps to ensure all safety precautions are followed and necessary heat prevention programs are in place on job sites.

High temperatures can raise the body's core temperature considerably without workers even knowing. And if employees aren't aware of their internal conditions, then employers won't be either. By noticing the warning signs and being aware of just how damaging heat can be to safety and productivity, employees can be protected from harsh working conditions.

Those at risk
Industrial workers both inside and outdoors are likely at risk of heat illness at some point during their normal workdays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed the following types of work environments are commonly plagued by high heat:

  • Factory
  • Construction
  • Boiler room
  • Agricultural

"New employees may be at the highest risk of heat-related il​lness."

Further, welders, mechanical operators and service technicians are at risk as well.

One of the largest challenges employers face is that work under these conditions must be completed in a safe manner and in full confidence that employees will voice their opinions and stresses. Workers in these fields are aware that heavily used machinery and furnaces give off a lot of heat, but it may be difficult to discern how much is too much.

In addition, workers who at one time may have been used to such conditions can become gravely affected by heat if they are away from the job for a week or so, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workers coming back from vacation need time to readjust their bodies to such extreme temperatures. Likewise, new employees may be at the highest risk of heat-related illness simply because they are not acclimated to such conditions.

Recognizing warning signs
Excess sweating is natural under stressful conditions, but extreme heat can be deadly. Common examples of heat illnesses from the CDC include:

  • Cramps
  • Rashes
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Confusion

Employees who exhibit these symptoms or behaviors should be removed from work sites immediately and given proper care. The above warning signs are indicative of much larger dangers that may facilitate more serious consequences. For instance, workers whose core temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit may suffer heat stroke or syncope.

Workers suffering from heat-related illnesses while operating heavy equipment or being suspended high in the air are at risk of grievous injury as well. Brought on by the effects of heat, workers can become dizzy, lose focus on the task at hand and potentially fall or lose a limb to a machine.

When workplace temperatures rise, employees must take extra precaution. When workplace temperatures rise, employees must take extra precautions.

Prevention is key
OSHA has spearheaded its own workplace efforts to protect employees from extreme heat exposure. Known as the Heat Illness Prevention Campaign, OSHA provides training tools, tips and educational resources to employers that can be implemented on work sites.

A few of these pieces of advice are:

  • Job sites should always have water facilities near every worker
  • Lighter, breathable clothing should be worn
  • Workloads should slowly be increased to ensure workers aren't exposed to high levels of heat at one sudden moment
  • Local ventilation points should be present in high moisture areas
  • Employees should have access to air-conditioned rooms, even when outdoors or suspended in the air
  • Appropriate work cycles and workloads should be spread evenly across crews
  • Cooling devices (dry ice, compressed air, self-contained, portable A/Cs) in PPE should be mandated on high-risk jobs

Many of the negative effects of heat can be mitigated by employers who delegate tasks appropriately and provide adequate on-site resources. Workers should be permitted to take multiple extended breaks when temperatures are higher. Similarly, the availability of food and water is a must.

Employees who are hydrated and nourished with a recent meal are much more capable of warding off the impact of heat exposure. Workers shouldn't feel singled out or punished for speaking about the demands of the job or if they are unsure of their personal well-being.

By working laterally with workers, employers and managers can keep operations running smoothly while promoting safe practices in high-risk environments.