Keeping cool during the summer months can seem like a chore unto itself, but it’s important to keep in mind that heat-related illnesses can happen year round in the work environment.
The body’s inability to adequately cool itself is a common cause of heat-related illnesses outdoors during the summer months, but this situation can occur throughout the year indoors as well. External sources of heat on the job can include direct contact with steam or a hot surface, and the body’s natural reactions to heat exposure (sweaty palms, fogged eyewear, and lightheadedness, for example) can also lead to an increased risk of accidents.
To help keep employees safe when things heat up at work, training should include ways to limit heat exposure and how to identify signs of heat-related illness. Worksite procedures should emphasize the importance of acclimatization and how it is developed, particularly for workers who are new to working in the heat or those who are returning after a week or more away from the job.
The best way to prevent heat-related illness is to make the work environment cooler, where possible. This could take the form of engineering controls such as air conditioning, cooling fans, insulating hot surfaces, ventilating hot air, eliminating steam leaks, etc., to reduce exposure.
OSHA recommends the following practices for managing work in a hot environment – whether they are outdoors or indoors:
-Employers should have an emergency plan in place that specifies what to do if a worker has signs of heat-related illness, and ensures that medical services are available if needed.
-Employers should take steps that help workers become acclimatized (gradually build up resistance to heat exposure), especially workers who are new to working in a hot environment or have been away from work for a week or more. Gradually increase workloads and allow more frequent breaks during the first week of work.
-Workers must have adequate potable water close to the work area, and should drink small amounts frequently.
-Rather than being exposed to heat for extended periods of time, workers should, wherever possible, be permitted to distribute the workload evenly over the day and incorporate work/rest cycles.
-If possible, physical demands should be reduced during hot weather, or heavier work scheduled for cooler times of the day.
-Rotating job functions among workers can help minimize overexertion and heat exposure.
-Workers should watch out for each other for symptoms of heat-related illness and administer appropriate first aid to anyone who is developing a heat-related illness.
-In some situations, employers may need to conduct physiological monitoring of workers. (The NIOSH/OSHA/USCG/EPA Occupational Safety and Health Guidance Manual for Hazardous Waste Site Activities, Chapter 8 (1985) (available as a pdf at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/complinks/OSHG-HazWaste/all-in-one.pdf) contains guidance on performing physiological monitoring of workers at hot worksites.)
To help determine the heat index for a given worksite, a number that can be used to calculate workers’ level of risk for heat-related illnesses, OSHA has developed a free mobile device application (available at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html) in both English and Spanish. Based on the heat index figure, the” Heat Safety Tool” displays the level of risk to outdoor workers and allows the user to access reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level to protect workers from heat-related illness.