Heat illness and death are preventable, yet thousands of workers become ill and 30 die from heat exposure every year. Workers at highest risk of heat illness include those in agricultural, construction, foundry, kitchen, landscaping and industry. It is a violation of the general duty clause when an employer is aware of heat-related danger but has not taken protective action to provide worker with, at a minimum, water, rest, and shade.
The main environmental factors that determine whether employees may be in danger are air temperature, humidity and air movement at the workplace. The best single measure of these factors is the Heat Index, which combines temperature and humidity. Employers should pay close attention to the Heat Index of their workplace, especially during summer months by taking temperature measurements, including wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) tests to measure the heat index to identify potential sources of heat-related illnesses.
Heat illness begins with symptoms such as weakness and headache and can progress to nausea and extreme sweating. An employee may develop heat stroke, which can be fatal, if the body cannot get rid of excess heat. If a person’s brain reaches 104 °F or above, it will stop functioning. This means that normal automatic body functions (such as sweating) can stop and the person’s temperature will go even higher. Employees still may have damage to the brain or other organs even if the person is quickly cooled and survives. The main human factors influencing whether an employee will develop heat illness are:
Work level (low to high activity which generates heat);
Age, weight, and degree of physical fitness;
Degree of acclimatization;
Use of alcohol or drugs;
Medical conditions; and
Clothing (light vs. heavy barriers that do not allow sweat to evaporate).
Employers with employees at risk of heat illness should develop a basic heat stress program. The program and acceptable methods to abate a heat hazard include:
Providing adequate amounts of cool, potable water and electrolyte replacements in the work area;
Providing a work-rest regimen;
Training employees about the effects of heat-related illness, how to report and recognize heat-related illness symptoms and how to prevent heat-related illnesses;
A heat acclimatization program for new employees or employees returning to work from absences of three or more days;
Providing a cool, climate-controlled area where heat-affected employees may take their breaks and/or recover when signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses are recognized;
Providing shaded areas where heat-affected employees may take their breaks and/or recover on worksites that do not have access to climate-controlled areas; and
Providing specific procedures to be followed for heat-related emergency situations and procedures for first aid to be administered immediately to employees displaying symptoms of heat-related illness.
CFR has been helping companies help employees avoid heat illnesses for over 25 years. Contact us to find out how we can help.