Heat illness as a work hazard has been prominent on the radar of safety professionals lately. California and Washington states have both promulgated regulations addressing heat illness as an occupational hazard. The thing to remember, it is not just workers in the sun that are affected. Federal OSHA also has a highly visible heat illness prevention campaign on its web site.
Agricultural workers are the typical focus of heat illness regulations. Workers, who pick, weed or otherwise maintain crops in hot weather are exposed to high heat conditions all day. If a worker is not acclimated to working in direct sun in hot weather, he or she could suffer heat illness. If not treated promptly heat illness can progress to heat exhaustion, which is often fatal. Employees who work in direct sun in hot weather should have access to cool water and shade and be able to take a break in the shade if they feel ill from working in the sun. From 2010 to 2011, four employees in California alone died from heat exhaustion.
There are actually many types of jobs for which heat illness is a danger. Construction workers have significant potential for heat illness. They are in direct sun for many hours, sometimes with no ready shade nearby. Plenty of water, shade and the opportunity to recover from the effects of the sun should be provided to construction workers.
Any job in which an employee works a significant amount of time outdoors or indoors in hot weather can put that employee at risk of heat illness. Landscapers, road construction workers, parking lot attendants, oil field workers, ticket takers, security guards and attendants at amusement parks all spend hours under hot sun with little access to shade and water. Reflected heat from paved and stone surfaces significantly increases the ambient working temperature.
However, not just outdoor workers are affected by heat. When working indoors with high humidity, radiant heat sources, contact with hot objects, strenuous work and high temperate, heat illness can also become a problem. Work environments that this can be an issue: steel and iron foundries, commercial kitchens and bakeries, mining sites, smelters, boiler rooms, glass and rubber products facilities and warehouses. In these environments, it is critical to have access to water, cool areas, acclimation and proper employee training.
Individuals with certain medical conditions are at increased risk of heat illness. Diabetes, pregnancy, excessive alcohol consumption and the use of certain prescription medications all increase an individual’s susceptibility to heat illness.
Probably the major factor in heat illness is the lack of acclimatization of workers. Individuals who are not used to working under the sun or in high heat are much more likely to succumb to heat illness than an individual used to the same conditions. Employees can succumb to heat illness at temperatures less than 90 degrees at the beginning of the hot season or if humidity is very high. Regions not typically associated with high heat can still be deadly during a heat wave, early in the season or during periods of high humidity.
With so many factors contributing to heat illness, safety professionals would be wise to review the work activities of employees to identify the potential for heat illness. The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is definitely true for heat illness.