New Workers Are at Highest Risk for Heat-Related Death

Allow recent recruits, returning workers to acclimate to heat

By Dana Wilkie Jun 6, 2016
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Who would you guess is most at risk for heat-related death while on the job?

It’s not necessarily older workers, first responders or those who toil outside all day.

Instead, the majority of recent heat-related deaths investigated by federal authorities involved workers who’d been on the job for three days or less.

That finding by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) highlights how important it is for employers to ensure that new workers—and returning employees who have been back to the job for a week or less—are prepared to protect themselves, OSHA authorities said.

With weather forecasters calling for above-average temperatures across much of the country this summer, the standard precautions—drink lots of water, take frequent breaks and spend time in the shade—may seem obvious. Yet those precautions may not be enough for new workers or employees returning to the job after extended time away. OSHA recommends allowing new or returning workers to gradually increase their workload and take more frequent breaks as they build up a tolerance for working in the heat.

Prevention

 Construction workers make up about one-third of heat-related worker deaths, but employees who work outdoors across many industries—agriculture, landscaping, transportation, utilities, grounds maintenance, emergency response, and oil and gas operations—are at risk when temperatures go up. Additionally, indoor employees who do strenuous work or wear bulky, protective clothing and use heavy equipment are also at risk. High humidity increases the chances of heat-related maladies such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

In 2014, 2,630 workers suffered from heat illness, and 18 died from heat stroke and related causes on the job, according to OSHA.

Under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are responsible for protecting workers from hazards on the job, including extreme heat. To prevent heat-related illness and fatalities, OSHA offers these suggestions:

  • Prepare a heat acclimatization plan and medical monitoring program. Closely supervise new employees, including those who are temporary workers or returning seasonal workers, for the first 14 days on the job—or until they acclimate to the heat. Though most heat-related worker deaths occur in the first three days on the job, more than one-third occur on the first day. If someone has not worked in hot weather for at least a week, his or her body needs time to adjust.
  • Encourage workers to drink about one cup of water every 15-20 minutes, even if they say they’re not thirsty. During prolonged sweating lasting several hours, they should drink sports beverages containing electrolytes.
  • Provide shaded or air-conditioned rest areas for cooling down, and encourage workers to use them.
  • Provide workers with protective equipment and clothing, such as hats, light-colored clothing, water-cooled garments, air-cooled garments, ice-packet vests, wetted overgarments, and heat-reflective aprons or suits. 
  • Be familiar with heat illness signs and symptoms, and make sure employees are, too. Some heat exhaustion signs are dizziness, headache, cramps, sweaty skin, nausea and vomiting, weakness, and a fast heartbeat. Heat stroke symptoms include: red, hot, dry skin; convulsions; fainting; and confusion. In general, any time a worker has fainted or demonstrates confusion, this represents an emergency situation. 
  • Tell workers to notify a supervisor or to call 911 if they or their co-workers show signs of heat illness. Implement a buddy system where workers observe each other for early signs and symptoms of heat intolerance. Have someone stay with a worker who is suffering from the heat until help arrives.
  • Encourage supervisors and workers to download OSHA’s Heat Safety Tool on their iPhone or Android device. [https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/heat_app.html] This app calculates the heat index, a measurement of how hot it is when taking humidity into account. The app also has recommendations for preventing heat illness based on the estimated risk level where one is working.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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