As a cold winter finally comes to an end, many of us look forward to summertime warmth. But while sun and heat may make for a fun day at the beach, they can spell danger for workers who are exposed to soaring temperatures and a rising heat index. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), thousands of workers in the United States get sick from excessive heat exposure while working outdoors each year and more than 30 workers died in 2012 from heat-related illnesses.
Although OSHA has no heat illness prevention standard, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (“OSH Act”), known as the General Duty Clause, requires employers to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. That includes protecting them from heat stroke and other serious heat-related illness. Of the “State-plan” states running their own safety programs under agreements with OSHA, only California and Washington currently have heat-related illness prevention standards. However, other State-plan states also have general duty clauses in their statutes that may be invoked to address these issues.
The dangers associated with excessive heat exposure are real. Employers should evaluate conditions at their worksites and take steps to prevent heat-related illness among their workers. OSHA has resources to help employers and employees stay safe when working in high-temperature and high-humidity conditions. They are available on OSHA’s website at www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/index.html.
In evaluating worksite conditions, employers should keep in mind that employees required to engage in intense or continuous physical exertion, or who are exposed to high temperatures and humidity or direct sunlight, may be susceptible to heat-related illness. Employees who are required to wear heavy or bulky protective clothing or equipment also may be susceptible. In addition, employees who have not previously worked outdoors in high temperature conditions generally are more at risk because they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions.
Two of the most serious heat-related illnesses are heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Both are dangerous illnesses that could result in death or hospitalization of the worker.
- Heat stroke occurs when the body’s way of cooling itself fails and body temperature rises above 104°F. The signs and symptoms of heat stroke are a high body temperature, red or hot skin, confusion, fainting and/or convulsions. If a worker is experiencing heat stroke, employers should call 911 and move the worker to a shady or cool area immediately. Employers also should remove as much of the affected worker’s clothing as possible and attempt to cool down the worker by placing cold, wet towels or ice all over the body.
- Heat exhaustion occurs when body temperature rises above 100.4°F. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, and heavy sweating. If a worker is experiencing heat exhaustion, employers should move the worker to a shady or cool area immediately. Employers also should remove the affected worker’s shoes, socks, and other unnecessary clothing, apply a cold compress to the head, neck and face, and give the worker cool water to drink. If symptoms persist or get worse, employers should call 911.
Employers should consider implementing some of the following measures, OSHA suggests, to reduce heat-related illness among their employees:
- Provide air-conditioned or shaded areas close to the work area and schedule frequent rest breaks.
- Provide workers with plenty of cool water in convenient, visible locations close to the work area.
- Encourage and remind workers to drink water before they become thirsty and about every 15 minutes.
- Allow workers to get used to heat conditions by gradually increasing exposure over a five-day work period and by implementing more frequent breaks during the first week of work in those conditions.
- Monitor weather reports daily and reschedule jobs with high heat exposure to cooler times of the day.
- Encourage employees to wear or provide employees with light-colored and permeable clothing.
- Monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat exposure and encourage employees to report symptoms of any heat-related illnesses.
- Train workers and supervisors about the hazards leading to heat stress and ways to prevent them.
- Implement an emergency plan and know what to do if someone is experiencing symptoms of a heat-related illness.
By limiting employees’ time in the heat and implementing safe work practices, employers can help prevent heat-related illness and reduce the chances of receiving a General Duty Clause citation.