Heat-related illnesses are a threat to many workers this summer. Here are tips to help keep your staff safe as temperatures soar.
A lot of the conversation around workplace safety has, naturally, been centered around COVID-19 in recent years. The pandemic is obviously a major risk to safety. But that doesn’t mean that other issues fade away while COVID takes center stage.
As much of the world, from the U.S. to Europe, battles a major heatwave, a new workplace safety issue steps into the spotlight: heat.
Perhaps your construction company relies on employees working outdoors. Maybe you have company events planned that are scheduled to take place outside. Even employees simply going on walks during their breaks can be dangerous when the mercury climbs this high.
Here’s how to keep your employees safe this summer as temperatures rise.
Understand the signs and dangers of heat stress
Working outside in the heat can cause more than just heat exhaustion. As OSHA explains, “exposure to heat can cause illness and death” alongside lesser but still serious issues like heat stroke (the most serious heat illness), heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash.
You might just think that heat-related issues impact outdoor workers like construction workers or roofers. But even indoor jobs can be risky when it gets hot outside, too. Workers like chefs, line cooks, and bakers as well as anyone working in a non-climate controlled indoor space also face heat-related risks.
In order to keep employees safe in the heat, it’s important to know the risk factors, signs, and symptoms of heat-related illness.
Signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses
Risk factors for heat illness include:
- High temperature and humidity, a lack of breeze or wind, and direct sun exposure
- Hard or heavy physical labor
- A lack of experience with hot workplaces
- Waterproof clothing (because it’s sealed to repel water, which means that it doesn’t breathe or cool well)
Symptoms of heat rash include:
- Clusters of itchy, blister-like red bumps
- Bumps are usually found around the neck and chest area or near folds of skin like elbows and knees
Symptoms of heat cramps include:
- Pain in the abdominal region or in the arms and legs
- Muscle spasms that are painful, involuntary, and intermittent
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Headache, dizziness, or fainting
- Weakness coupled with wet skin
- Irritability or confusion
- Thirst, nausea, or vomiting
Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Confusion, inability to think clearly
- Passing out, collapsing, or having seizures
General rule of thumb for identifying heat illnesses in employees
It’s important to note that there isn’t a hard and fast rule about when someone can be at risk for heat illnesses. But a general rule of thumb does exist.
When the outdoor temperature starts to rival the average human body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), “cooling down becomes much more difficult,” Employers.com explains. “The body is unable to lose its heat through sweating and begins to store it. This causes the body’s core internal temperature to rise and the heat rate to increase.”
Without the opportunity to cool down, that’s when heat illnesses set in.
How to prevent heat-related illnesses in workers
This is where the employer’s job comes in. Every employer is responsible for providing their employees with a safe workplace and the outdoors are no exception. Here are a few ways to keep your workers safe when it’s hot, either outside or inside:
Create a heat illness prevention plan
Not sure where to start? OSHA provides a template that employers can use to establish a heat illness prevention plan. Yours can be equally in depth, or you can just pick and choose the parts that make the most sense for you and your business. Once you’ve identified those elements, you can pull them together into your own version of a heat plan.
Provide training about the hazards of heat stress and how to prevent them
First, your employees should know what to do to keep themselves safe in the heat. (Think: frequent breaks, drinking plenty of water, and wearing heat-appropriate clothing).
But all employees should also know how to react to a coworker who is suffering from heat illness. In addition to covering the risks, signs, and symptoms, you should train your workers on what to do if heat illness occurs (more on this in a bit).
Always provide water near employees’ work area
Not only should there be water on hand, but it should ideally be cool or ice water. This can help to keep internal temperatures down.
Ensure there are frequent rest periods built into the work schedule
The warmer it gets, the more frequent breaks should be. Offer at least a shaded area for breaks and, ideally, an air-conditioned one. Breaks need to be long enough (at least 10 minutes) and frequent enough (once every hour) to keep heat illness at bay.
Increase workloads gradually for those unaccustomed to working in the heat
Some people have experience working in hot conditions. But for those who don’t, the risk can be extra high. Not only are they not acclimated to it, but they’re likely less aware of the signs and symptoms of heat illness as well.
The warmer it gets, the more frequent breaks should be.
Don’t throw them right into a regular schedule. Slowly increase their workloads over time so their bodies can acclimate to the working conditions. You should also allow more frequent heat breaks to those who are new or who have been away from work for a while.
Designate a heat monitor on the staff
It should be someone’s job (usually a manager or a supervisor) to keep an eye on everyone throughout the day. This provides for an overall monitoring of heat illness symptoms.
Encourage the use of a buddy system among workers
In addition to a heat monitor, everyone should be paired with a buddy. That way, each pair of workers is responsible for paying particular attention to their buddy, keeping an eye out for the signs and symptoms of heat illness. Buddy systems are often a good idea because it can be difficult to self-identify the signs of heat illness (like confusion).
Offer protective clothing to employees
Appropriate apparel is essential to heat safety. Light-colored, loose-fitting, and lightweight clothing is always a good idea.
But you can go above and beyond by providing clothing that’s specially designed to keep people cool in the heat. Especially if you’re invested in company swag anyway, this is a good opportunity to provide clothing that is fun and functional.
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What to do when someone experiences a heat illness
Each company will have a unique approach, of course. But in general, train employees to cover the most essential bases:
- Call a supervisor and 911 for help.
- Stay with the affected worker until help arrives.
- Move the person to a cooler area if possible and remove their outermost layers of clothing.
- Fan and mist the worker and apply ice bags or cold towels.
- Provide cool water for them to drink if they’re able.
With climate change, chances are extreme heat is only going to become more and more common. Even if your company isn’t facing heat-focused issues right now, it’s always a good idea to be as prepared as possible.
Not only is heat safety education an important part of the responsibility employers have to their employees, it also shows your workers that you care about their health, safety, and well-being.
Consider adding heat safety to your employee handbook and integrating it into other safety trainings. Then, once summer hits, it’s not a bad idea to offer a dedicated training on heat illness just to be safe.