Every year in the United States, excessive heat contributes to about 400 fatalities. Many of these heat-related deaths occur in the workplace, and thousands more become ill while working in high-temperature conditions.
Exposure to excessive heat isn’t always preventable, especially in some industries. But employers and employees can take steps to ensure that these illnesses and tragedies become far less common in the workplace.
As summer heats up in Western North Carolina, Mercy Occupational Medicine wants to remind you the importance of staying safe and keeping hydrated at work.
Who is at risk?
Heat-related illnesses can occur outdoors or indoors, even with temperatures reaching only the upper 80s. The majority of heat-related illnesses occur in the construction industry — but all employees who spend prolonged periods outdoors (construction, agriculture, landscaping) or in hot indoor conditions (workers in kitchens, foundries, warehouses, etc.) are at an increased risk for heat-related health hazards.
These illnesses can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition — but some people are more susceptible than others. Adults over 65 have an increased risk, as well as those with chronic conditions. Many medications also affect the body’s ability to tolerate high temperatures, stay hydrated and dissipate heat — so it’s especially important to be aware of employees’ individual tolerances.
Keeping workers safe:
Through OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention Regulation, supervisors are required to protect employees from heat illness, especially when employees are working outdoors.
- Supply employees with cool water. Staying hydrated is one of the most important factors in preventing heat illness. Employees must have constant, nearby access to fresh, pure and reasonably cool water. Ensure that a plan is in place to refill water coolers throughout the day.
- Indoors: Provide proper ventilation and cooling. If air conditioning is available, make sure it is working properly. Workplaces should be adequately ventilated in humid or high-heat conditions, using exhaust vents, cooling fans, insulation and/or reflective shields to redirect heat.
- Outdoors: Ensure access to a cool, shaded place to rest. Shade must always be accessible and available to employees working outdoors. Frequent breaks during high-temperature conditions are extremely important, and employees must be able to rest and cool down between bouts of outdoor work.
- Set reminders. In high-heat conditions, employees should be reminded to drink water frequently and take breaks in shaded areas. Workers should be drinking small amounts of water at least every 15 minutes to keep hydrated.
- Train employees on heat hazards. Supervisors and workers should be aware of the severity of health hazards in high-heat situations. All parties should be trained on the risk factors of heat-related illnesses, along with the different types, symptoms and treatments for each related illness. Employees should know how to respond to potential heat-related illnesses and must know the procedure on contacting emergency medical services.
- Have a plan in place. Before workers are exposed to high temperatures, employers should follow all of the steps above, have a plan in place for addressing mild heat-related illnesses and provide a clear and precise plan for emergency situations.