Much of the country has been sweltering under record high temperatures in what may yet develop into the hottest summer on record. Maintaining normal operations and productivity during record heat can pose a number of management challenges. OSHA has no specific standards or regulations concerning heat-related illness; however, every employer is obligated by OSHA’s General Duty Clause to furnish to every employee with a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. In addition, many state labor departments have regulations that may apply to your individual workplaces. According to OSHA, heat stroke killed more than 30 workers last year.

Despite the lack of OSHA standards governing hot weather working conditions, the summer of 2011 has not escaped the federal government’s attention. OSHA has produced a new subsection of its Web site entitled Water. Rest. Shade. devoted to educating employees and workers on the peril of and preventive measures for heat-related illness. The page also provides a number of useful informational guides and training tools.

The issues associated with heat-related illness are not limited to those who work outdoors. Any employee who is subjected to hot and humid working conditions is at risk of suffering heat-related illness. Employees who, for other reasons, must wear bulky protective clothing and equipment face greater risk as do employees with underlying health conditions.

The warning signs of heat-related illness are not always obvious. They include:

  • Increased irritability or confusion
  • Headache, dizziness, or fainting
  • In some instances, actually stopping sweating

Like most workplace safety issues, preventive steps are recommended to decrease the risk of injury or illness. The first thing employers should do is monitor upcoming weather trends and anticipate when the next heat wave will hit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has its own Web site called Heat Watch with an informational heat index and associated heat watches and warnings. To prepare for unusually high heat conditions management should:

  • Train supervisors to recognize the warning signs of heat-related illness
  • Provide training to supervisors and employees on the following preventive steps:
    • Provide lots of cool water in close proximity to the work area
    • Instruct employees to drink at lease one pint of water per hour
    • Encourage employees to take more frequent breaks away from direct sun and direct heat sources
    • Routinely check workers who are at risk
    • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
    • When possible, provide fans and misting when air conditioning is not available