It’s that time of the year when birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and the temperature is beginning to soar to record breaking numbers. Everyone loves the summertime temperature, but for those who have to work outside, this time of the year can be very uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous. Along with the rising temperature comes heat related on-the- job injuries.
Industries most affected by heat-related illness are: construction, trade, transportation and utilities, agriculture, ground maintenance, landscaping services, and support activities for oil and gas operations. Any worker exposed to hot and humid conditions is at risk of heat illness, especially those doing heavy work tasks or using bulky protective clothing and equipment. In addition, some workers might be at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions, including new workers, temporary workers, or those returning to work after a week or more off.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have launched a campaign to build awareness and prevent heat related injuries while working outside. The campaign motto: “Water. Rest. Shade. The work can’t get done without them” is designed to stress the importance of taking all necessary precautions before the effects of heat are felt. OSHA reported that in 2014 alone, 2,630 workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died from heat stroke and related causes on the job.
As a general rule, you can get workers’ compensation for most work related injuries. To be considered a work related injury, the injury must be caused or aggravated by the work duties or the condition of the workplace. To get workers’ compensation for heat related illnesses on-the-job, one has to prove that having to work outside in the heat caused the injury. Workers dealing with extreme heat may suffer several different heat illnesses, including:
- Heat Stroke- The most serious conditions, heat stroke occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature. At this point the sweating mechanism has failed, the body temperature begins rising quickly, reaching up to 106 degrees in 10 to 15 minutes. Symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, loss of consciousness, dry skin or profuse sweating, seizures and extremely high body temperature. Without emergency treatment, heat stroke can cause permanent disabilities or even death. In hot temperatures, the body must work to remove excess heat and maintain a stable internal temperature. This is primarily done through blood circulation and sweating. Normal internal body temperature is 98.6 degrees and the closer the other temperature gets to this, the more difficult it is for a worker to cool off. When the cooling mechanisms of the body fail, the body stores the heat, causing internal temperature to rise and heart rate to increase.
- Heat Exhaustion- Occurs when the body’s reaction to a lack of water and salt, typically brought on by excessive sweating. Signs of heat exhaustion include experiencing headache, dizziness, nausea, heavy sweating, confusion, thirst, and temperatures higher than 100.4 degrees. Workers with high blood pressure and the elderly are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion.
- Heat Cramps- Workers who sweat a lot may experience heat cramps due to loss of fluids. These painful cramps can be relieved by drinking lots of water or sports drinks every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Heat Rash- Appearing as red clusters or small blisters, heat rash is the most common issue facing workers in hot environments. Heat rash is caused by excessive sweating and can affect many areas of the body, including the upper chest, neck, groin, under the breasts, and elbow creases.
Heat related exposure includes all of the above, but also injuries from falls, equipment operations, and accidents that occur when a worker has sweaty palms or fogged safety glasses or becomes dizzy, disoriented or fatigued as a result from dehydration. Studies show that dehydration levels of 2% of body weight or more impair visual motor tracking, short-term memory, attention and arithmetic efficiency. A 23% reduction in reaction time occurs at the 4% dehydration level. Such declines in cognitive performance significantly can increase the risk of work related accidents.
In Globe Indemnity Co. v. Simonton 88 Ga. App.694, 76 S.E. 2d 837 (1953), the Claimant suffered a heat stroke on June 27, 1952. Claimant was hired as a ‘tripper”. His job duties required him to carry packages weighing between 9 and 24 pounds from the steam room to the loading platform, and unload them. On the date of injury, Claimant was working in 100+ degree weather. Claimant told his employer that he was not feeling well, and was later taken to the hospital for a heat stroke. The medical records showed that the heat stroke affected the Claimant’s brain, and speech centers. The Administrative Law Judge entered an Award for the Claimant, and the Superior Court affirmed on appeal. The Employer argued there was no evidence to support the award, and there was no evidence presented that showed the Claimant was engaged in duties for the Employer at the time of the heat stroke. Also, they argued there was no casual relationship between the Claimant’s activities on the date of accident, and the heat stroke that he suffered. The Court of Appeals held the evidence was insufficient to support an award because there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the seizure was brought on by the Claimant’s employment. Furthermore, they agreed that physical exertion can contribute to a heat stroke or exhaustion while one is engaged in physical activity. However, they concluded to carry the burden, the Claimant has to show some evidence in the record as to the exertion that actually existed at the time of the heat stroke, and some evidence that the quantum of physical exertion contributed to the heat stroke/seizure.
However, in Parham v. Swift Transportation Company, Inc.,292 Ga.App.53, 663 S.E. 2d 769 (2008), the Court of Appeals held that Claimant’s acute renal failure that he suffered while working in the extreme heat arose from his employment, and was compensable. In this claim, Claimant unloaded a 53-foot trailer in humid weather exceeding 90 degrees, which took him all day to unload. Claimant began to feel something was wrong, and began wanting to drink water. At the end of the day, Claimant reported to his supervisor that he was feeling ill. The next morning Claimant was feeling worse, and he went to the hospital emergency room. He was diagnosed with fatigue, urinary tract infection, and acute renal failure. It was noted that the Claimant did not have a history of renal or kidney problems prior to this incident. The Court concluded that Claimant’s job activities and the work conditions caused the renal failure.
In summary, Employers have a duty to protect their workers from excessive heat. Under OSHA, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat. Employers are charged with establishing a heat illness prevention program that provides workers with water, rest and shade; allows new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take frequent breaks as they acclimatize, or build a tolerance for working in the heat; plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention, and monitor workers for signs of illness.