The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) wants employers around the country to know that three simple steps can mean the difference between life and death for their employees.
According to a news release from the DOL, thousands of outdoor workers experience heat illness every year. Heat illness often manifests as heat exhaustion, which, if not addressed quickly, can become heat stroke. More than 30 U.S. workers died of heat stroke in 2010.
“If you’re working outdoors, you’re at risk for heat-related illnesses that can cause serious medical problems and even death,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in the news release. “But heat illness can be prevented. This Labor Department campaign will reach across the country with a very simple message—water, rest and shade.”
Mark Lovelace is the Laredo, Texas, area safety manager for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service. He and the border patrol deal with hot weather most of the year.
“Heat injury is without a doubt one of the greatest hazards my folks face in South Texas,” Lovelace said. “Almost every day from the first of April to the first of November they battle hazardous heat conditions.”
Heat exposure is particularly dangerous because its effects can be cumulative, Lovelace said.
“The problem with repeated exposure to high temperatures is that, when coupled with fatigue, nutrition or hydration shortfalls, the individual experiences exponentially increased risk. If I am not properly hydrated, fed or rested after the first workday, then I start the second workday with a deficit,” Lovelace said.
The deficit increases each succeeding day, he added, and any additional stress—physical or mental—can compound the problem. Mental acuity and productivity at work are affected in the short term, but long-term effects can include chronic organ diseases.
“Many managers don’t understand the cumulative effect of heat exposure,” Lovelace said. “I spend a great deal of time educating them not ‘how’ to take care of their people but ‘why’ to take care of them. I feel this is a huge problem that only compounds the risk in other hazardous situations.”
The DOL’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has developed heat illness educational materials in English and Spanish as well as a curriculum to be used for workplace training. Additionally, a new web page provides information and resources on heat illness—including how to prevent it and what to do in case of an emergency—for workers and employers. The page is available at www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/index.html.
“Drinking water often, taking breaks and limiting time in the heat are simple, effective ways to prevent heat illness,” said OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels in the news release.
Federal OSHA has partnered with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adapt materials from that state’s successful outreach campaign on heat illness for use in this national effort, according to the news release. OSHA also has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on weather service alerts that will incorporate worker safety precautions when heat alerts are issued across the country. NOAA will include pertinent worker safety information on its Heat Watch web page at www.noaawatch.gov/themes/heat.php.
Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.