Keeping Employees Safe in the Heat

[fa icon="calendar'] Jul 7, 2015 8:00:00 AM / by Deborah Lechner

Keeping employees safe in the heat is a major concern in industries that require outdoor work. Excessive heat can be very hazardous for workers, and for those who are working outdoors and are directly exposed to the sun, conditions can be even worse. So how serious are the risks and what can employers do to help ensure that their employees stay safe and healthy under these tough conditions? Here we will delve into the details of heat-related illnesses, injuries and fatalities among outdoor workers, as well as tips on preventing workplace injuries of this type in your workforce.

What to Know About Heat Stress

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), outdoor workers are exposed to six sources of heat stress:

  • Excessive body heat generated by hard physical labor
  • Environmental heat created by conditions that include moderate to high air temperature – especially when combined with high humidity levels – and direct sun exposure
  • Protective clothing and equipment
  • Lack of adequate hydration
  • Insufficient rest periods
  • Lack of facilities for cooling down

Heat-related illness and injury occurs when heat exposure from those sources increases to the point that the body's natural cooling process is overwhelmed, becoming ineffective in reducing body temperature to safe levels. The affects of the breakdown of the cooling process can range from minor ones, such as heat rash and heat cramps, to more serious issues, like heat syncope – or fainting – heat exhaustion and heat stroke, a true medical emergency and one which can be fatal.

NIOSH reports that 423 heat related fatalities occurred in U.S. workers between 1992 and 2006. Of those deaths, 102 occurred in workers employed in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries. Occupations that are at highest risk for health related illness, injury and death, according to NIOSH, include logging, fire fighting, agriculture, and construction. In 2011, 4,420 workers were sickened by excessive heat, numbers that, according to OSHA, are likely inaccurate due to under-reporting.

Tips for Keeping Employees Safe in the Heat

For companies with outdoor workers, preventing injuries caused by excessive heat exposure is an essential part of workplace safety. The U.S. Department of Labor ecommends safety measures that include:

  • Educating workers on heat-related illness
  • Introducing workers to high temperature occupations gradually over a period of 7 to 14 days
  • Planning most work for cooler times of day – early morning or late afternoon
  • Allowing frequent breaks in cool areas
  • Stressing the importance of physical fitness
  • Providing cool drinks at the rate of one cup every 20 minutes

Another safety measure that employers can take to aid in preventing workplace injuries in general, as well as heat-related illness in outdoor workers includes Physical Abilities Testing to ensure that employees are capable of performing safely in these demanding jobs. The Physical Abilities Test typically includes taking a medical history and measuring resting heart rate and blood pressure before conducting the work-related aspects of these tests. This information can help job applicants and employees identify conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension, among others, that may make exertion in hot, humid conditions especially risky for workers.

Outdoor work, whether in the oil fields of West Texas, building homes in Phoenix, or landscaping in L.A., is tough in the summer sun. Taking measures to ensure your workers’ safety just makes sense – including measures to ensure they are in good shape, capable of performing the physical demands of the job and able to take the heat before you put them on the payroll.

When are Physical abilities test best performed

Topics: Workplace Safety

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.