Heat Illness Prevention

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Millions of U.S. workers are exposed to excessive heat in their workplaces every year. Thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure, and many of those cases are fatal. Employers have a responsibility to protect their workers from the dangers of heat-related illness, and the good news is that heat-related illness can be prevented.

Types of Heat-Related Illness

Heat-related illness types range from minor health issues to life-threatening conditions. Heat stroke is the most serious condition and can be deadly. It occurs when the body’s temperature regulating system fails and body temperature rises to levels greater than 104 degrees.

Other heat-related illness types include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. It is important for workers to receive training to learn about these illnesses and what signs and symptoms to look for, along with needed medical treatment.

Occupational Risk Factors

There are a wide variety of work environments and work activities that can put workers in danger. The primary occupational risk factors for heat illness include heavy physical activity, hot environmental conditions, lack of acclimatization, and wearing clothing that holds in body heat or does not breathe well.

Some employers make the mistake of only worrying about heat illness during a mid-summer heat wave, but hazardous heat exposure can occur both indoors or outdoors, and during any season. Some examples of environments that put workers in harm’s way include:
• Working outdoors in hot weather
• Working around sources of heat such as ovens, fires, or hot tar
• Working in a confined space
• Working in poorly ventilated areas

Does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have a specific standard that addresses heat illness prevention?

Currently, federal OSHA does not have a specific standard for hazardous heat conditions. This fact does not alleviate employers from their responsibility to protect workers though. According to OSHA, under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” The courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard. This includes heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.

Some states, such as California, Minnesota, and Washington do run OSHA-approved Sate Plans and have standards for heat exposure.

Be advised though, that in October 2021, the U.S. Department of labor initiated a rulemaking process aiming to protect workers from heat hazards. This action begins the process to consider a heat-specific workplace rule. Read more here.

What can you do as an employer to protect workers?

Employers have a great responsibility to protect their workers, and there are many resources available. The first line of defense for an employer is to establish a comprehensive heat illness prevention program. At a minimum, this program would include the following elements:
• Provide workers with water, rest, and shade.
• Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
• Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
• Monitor workers for signs of illness.

OSHA has created an Occupational Exposure to Heat page that provides more detail on what employers can do to keep workers safe and informed. They also provide heat illness educational and training materials on their Publications page.

In addition, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published criteria for a recommended standard for occupational heat stress. This document includes recommendations for employers about how to prevent heat-related illness. That can be found here: Criteria for a Recommended Standard – Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments.

Whether you are an employer seeking to protect your employees or you hire outside contractors to work at your facility, heat-related illness is serious and puts workers at great risk. Understand the risks and what needs to be done to prevent heat-related illness.

For more resources, check out the Appruv Resource Center.  To learn more about how Appruv can help, contact us today.

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