Every day, millions of U.S. workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces. Although illness from exposure to heat is preventable, every year, thousands become sick from occupational heat exposure. Sadly, some cases are fatal. Hazardous heat exposure can occur indoors or outdoors. As a result, OSHA is sponsoring a “Beat the Heat Contest” to raise awareness of the dangers and hazards of heat exposure in both indoor and outdoor workplaces.
OSHA’s Beat the Heat Contest has four main goals:
- Educate stakeholders, especially workers and employers, about heat hazards in the workplace.
- Prevent heat illness by creating an awareness campaign that increases the public’s knowledge about this issue.
- Highlight the dangers of heat; and
- Motivate employers and workers to take action to prevent heat illness.
Tragically, every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill while working in hot or humid conditions. To combat this, OSHA created a Heat Illness Prevention campaign in 2022 to educate employers and workers on the dangers of working in the heat. Whether you work outside, or inside in a hot and humid environment, you’re at risk of enduring a heat illness. “Our goal is to make it safe for workers in hot indoor and outdoor environments, so that they can return home safe and healthy at the end of each day,” said Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker. “Working together, we can ensure workers know their rights and employers meet their obligations in order to protect workers from the growing dangers of extreme heat.”
Some industries where workers have suffered heat-related illnesses:
- Bakeries, kitchens, and laundries
- Construction – especially, road, roofing, and other outdoor work
- Electrical utilities, boiler rooms
- Fire Service
- Iron and steel mills and foundries
- Mail and package delivery
- Oil and gas well operations
What are heat illnesses? A heat illness is one caused by high temperatures and humidity. In a warm environment, the human body relies on its ability to get rid of excess heat to maintain a healthy internal body temperature. Heat dissipation happens naturally through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. If heat dissipation does not happen quickly enough, the internal body temperature keeps rising and the worker may experience symptoms that include thirst, irritability, a rash, cramping, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.
The four most common heat illnesses include:
- Heat rash, which is a stinging skin irritation that turns your skin red.
- Heat cramps, which are painful spasms in your muscles.
- Heat exhaustion, which is caused by too few fluids and long hours in high temperatures, causes heavy sweating, a fast and weak pulse and rapid breathing.
- Heat stroke happens when your temperatures rise above 106 degrees very quickly -within minutes. This is a life-threatening illness.
Heat illness is serious, but we can work together to prevent it.
Employers can keep workers safe in the heat. Employers should create plans to protect workers from developing heat-related illnesses. Keeping workers cool and well-hydrated are the best ways to protect them when working in hot environments. If you or your employees are working in a hot work environment, it is vital to understand how to address heat-related illnesses to keep everyone safe.
Heat-related illnesses can be prevented. The first step in prevention is for employers and workers to recognize heat hazards. Management should commit to:
- Protect new workers.
- Train all employees to recognize heat hazards.
- Determine whether total heat stress is too high.
- Implement engineering and administrative controls to reduce heat stress.
- Provide sufficient rest, shade, and fluids.
Unfortunately, most outdoor fatalities occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance (acclimatization) to the heat gradually over time. Lack of acclimatization is a major risk factor for fatal outcomes. Our bodies sweat to cool ourselves. Sometimes, sweating isn’t effective enough.
In fact, OSHA encourages water, rest, & shade as prevention as well as treatment for heat-related illness. In addition, engineering controls such as air conditioning, can make the workplace safer. Other options include making changes to workload and schedules. For example, scheduling work for the morning or shorter shifts with frequent rest breaks in the shade. Encourage workers in warm, humid environments to drink hydrating fluids. At a minimum, all supervisors and workers should receive training about heat-related symptoms and first aid. The best scenario in workplaces at high risk of heat illnesses would be a formal Heat Illness Prevention Program.
Heat Illness Prevention Program key elements include:
- A Person Designated to Oversee the Heat Illness Prevention Program
- Hazard Identification
- Water. Rest. Shade. Message
- Modified Work Schedules
- Monitoring for Signs and Symptoms
- Emergency Planning and Response
It is important to understand workers’ rights and vital information about heat illness. Clearly, some workers are more susceptible to heat-related illness. Personal risk factors include medical conditions, lack of physical fitness, previous episodes of heat-related illness, alcohol consumption, drugs, and use of certain medication. Management should commit to preventing heat-related illness for all employees. In accordance with their heat tolerance levels. Measurement of heart rate, body weight, or body temperature can provide individualized data to aid decisions about heat controls.
Training workers before work in extreme heat begins is just the first step in keeping workers safe. Additionally, tailoring the training to worksite conditions is key. Employers should provide a heat stress training program for all workers and supervisors that include the following:
- Causes of heat-related illnesses and steps to reduce the risk.
- The importance of acclimatization.
- Recognition of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and administration of first aid.
- The importance of immediately reporting any symptoms or signs of heat-related illness.
- Proper care and use of heat-protective clothing and equipment.
- The added heat load caused by exertion, clothing, and personal protective equipment.
- Effects of other factors (drugs, alcohol, obesity, etc.) on tolerance to occupational heat stress.
- Procedures for responding to symptoms of possible heat-related illness.
- Procedures for contacting emergency medical services.
While heat related illnesses are dangerous, they are also preventable with the right knowledge and plan in place. Employees can be prepared and protected while working in less than perfect environments. At NSC, we are here to help. Our Heat Stress Training Program encourages employees to have a positive attitude about heat fatigue safety, learn the symptoms of heat exhaustion and how to recognize if their body is overheating to prevent heat fatigue.