Seyfarth Synopsis: As we approach the heat of the summer season and as employers begin to re-open after months of COVID-19 quarantine, workers may be out of shape, out of practice on workplace safety procedures, and may have to rebreathe hot air through face coverings. As they focus on COVID-19 efforts, employer should remain aware of risks of safety rule violations, injuries, and heat illness.
We have previously blogged on heat stress in the workplace. See “Water. Rest. Shade.” OSHA Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers, Cool For the Summer, Avoid the Summer Heat! Sweat the Details of California’s “Cool-Down” Periods and Avoid the Burn of Wage and Hour Class Litigation, and Cal/OSHA Drafts Rules for the Marijuana/Cannabis Industry and Heat Illness Prevention in Indoor Places of Employment.
As workers are beginning to return to work after a prolonged absence due to COVID-19, employers should be extra vigilant in refreshing employee training, especially as it relates to heat illness prevention and other safety requirements that could have slipped an employee’s mind while they were in quarantine.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a webpage dedicated to heat stress. NIOSH indicates that “workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments may be at risk of heat stress. Exposure to extreme heat can result in occupational illnesses and injuries. Heat stress can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat rashes. Heat can also increase the risk of injuries in workers as it may result in sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, and dizziness.” Workers are especially susceptible to heat illness when they have not had a chance to acclimatize to a hot environment. As workers come out of quarantine, they may be used to being in air-conditioned environments and may need re-acclimatization to hot environments.
“Workers at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments such as firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, factory workers, and others. Workers at greater risk of heat stress include those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications that may be affected by extreme heat.” These higher risk employees were among the first to quarantine due to risks associated with COVID-19 and may need the longest time to re-acclimatize in the workplace.
According to various studies, face mask-associated “facial heat complaints may represent any of a variety of effects, including local dermal effects, increased temperature of breathing air, elevated core temperature, or psychophysiological responses.” Therefore, risks of heat stress may be exacerbated through use of face coverings, which function like scarves by keeping warm air near the body. Employers who have employees that may be susceptible to heat illness should note and take efforts to minimize the exacerbating effects that heat may have, especially in the context of the coronavirus epidemic. Many employees working physical jobs may be out of shape and at greater risk to suffer from heat illness. Employers should assess the hazard and implement a heat illness prevention plan, perhaps adding additional breaks and other measures necessary for employees to regulate their body temperatures.
Finally, workers may be months removed from performing lockout-tagout, entering permit-required confined spaces, using Company safety procedures, and complying with other safety rules. Return to work may necessitate generalized retraining on core safety rules.