The Low Down on Safety When Temperatures Soar
Do you have employees who work outside? Then you should have a plan to prevent heat illnesses and make sure your team knows the signs of sickness. While OSHA doesn’t have a specific rule that covers heat exposures, mitigation plans can be an important part of your safety program. The higher the heat and humidity, the greater the risk of workers getting sick. We can use the heat index, which includes color-coded danger levels to show the intensity of heat and humidity together, as a guideline to know when action should be taken. The Centers for Disease Control has a great heat index app that incorporates your local weather forecast in its outdoor work recommendations.
How to identify heat illnesses.
Heat illnesses usually start small and can escalate quickly. It’s important to pay attention to the signs in order to keep overheating and dehydration from becoming dangerous. The three main categories of heat illness are determined by severity of symptoms, listed here in order of least to most serious:
1. Heat rash is the most common health problem in hot work environments. It is caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. Heat rash usually appears on parts of the body that overlap or rub other parts of the body, such as in the groin area, under the arms or breasts, and in knee or elbow creases.
2. Heat exhaustion results when the body loses the ability to cool itself and begins to dehydrate. Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion typically include:
- Profuse sweating
- Weakness and fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle cramps (associated with dehydration)
- Light-headedness or fainting; fainting or loss of consciousness is potentially serious and should be treated as a medical emergency.
3. Heat stroke occurs when overheat and dehydration are extremely severe. The person may stop sweating, become confused or lethargic, and may even have a seizure! The internal body temperature may exceed 106 degrees F. Heat stroke requires an immediate emergency medical response. Signs and symptoms of heat stroke typically include:
- Absence of sweating
- Dry skin
- Agitation or strange behavior
- Dizziness, disorientation, or lethargy
- Seizures or signs that mimic those of a heart attack
What should you do when you see symptoms of heat illnesses?
Ideally, you will identify the symptoms of heat illness early, respond quickly and head off the most severe symptoms before they require medical intervention.
Prevention. The best way to prevent all heat illnesses is by being aware of one’s physical limits in hazardous environment on hot, humid days. The most important factor is to drink enough clear fluids (especially water, not alcohol or caffeine) to replace liquids lost to perspiration.
Intervention. When you recognize heat exhaustion symptoms in an employee, you must intervene: Stop the activity, and move the employee to a cooler environment. Cooling off and rehydrating with water (or electrolyte-replacing sports drinks) is the cornerstone of treatment for heat exhaustion. If the employee resumes work before their core temperature returns to normal levels, symptoms may quickly return, so give the person plenty of time to recover.
If there is no intervention and the body’s temperature regulation fails, heat exhaustion can rapidly progress to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition!
Emergency Action. If you suspect heat stroke, summon emergency responders immediately. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent damage to the brain and other vital organs that can result in death. You can help while waiting for emergency responders to arrive:
- Cool the employee by moving them to an air-conditioned environment or a cool, shady area.
- Help the employee remove any unnecessary clothing.
- Do not leave the employee unattended.
Five categories for your heat safety checklist.
So, what can you do to be ready for heat exposures? Make sure your safety program includes these five categories to prevent heat illnesses. Ask these questions to make sure your heat safety program is effective.
- Is there plenty of fresh, cool drinking water located as close as possible to the workers?
- Are water coolers refilled throughout the day? Has someone been designated to check and refill water stations?
- Is shade or air conditioning available for breaks and if workers need to recover?
- Do workers know the common signs and symptoms of heat-related illness?
- Do they know:
- Proper precautions to prevent heat-related illness?
- Importance of acclimatization?
- Importance of drinking water frequently, even when they are not thirsty?
- Steps to take if someone is having symptoms?
4. Emergency Preparedness
- Does everyone know who to notify if there is an emergency?
- Can workers explain their location if they need to call an ambulance?
- Does everyone know who will provide first aid?
5. Knowledgeable Person
- For high and very high/extreme heat index risk levels, is there a knowledgeable person at the worksite who is well-informed about heat-related illness?
- Is there someone on site who can determine appropriate work/rest schedules and conduct physiological monitoring, as necessary?
With a little planning, you can help protect employee health during heat exposures. OR-OSHA has a helpful training resource using pictograms. NIOSH has additional information and has a helpful heat index app that includes updated weather forecasts with heat index information. Follow these five easy steps to keep your employees—and yourself—safe this summer. It’s hot out there!
Yours in success,
Chief Safety Consultant
Rebecca is the Chief Safety Consultant of Integrated Success HR Consulting & Coaching, LLC. She has extensive credentials and experience as an Environmental Health and Safety/Risk Management professional and leader across a variety of industries. Her background in for-profit, non-profit and governmental organizations, and as a former OSHA compliance officer, means Rebecca knows how to design cost-effective programs that really work. Rebecca’s passion is translating her vast experience into straight-forward programs for busy leaders.