National Heat Illness Prevention Campaign Launched

By Roy Maurer May 26, 2014

With Memorial Day weekend behind us and the summer months ahead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is kicking off its annual heat illness prevention campaign to protect outdoor workers. Workers at particular risk are those in outdoor industries, such as agriculture, construction, landscaping and transportation.

“Thousands of employees become sick each year and many die from working in the heat,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. Heat illness most affects those who have not built up a tolerance to heat and is especially dangerous for new and temporary workers, he said. “By taking early and quick action, and incorporating safeguards such as water, rest and shade into our workplaces, we can prevent heat illness and save lives.”

In 2012, there were 31 heat-related worker deaths and 4,120 heat-related worker illnesses, according to OSHA. The agency issued 11 heat-related citations in 2013. In some of these cases, employers and staffing agencies were cited because they involved temporary workers.

Heat Illness Defined

Heat illness can be brought on by internal body heat generated by exertion (hard physical labor) and environmental heat arising from working conditions. Contributing factors to heat illness include:

  • Moderate to high air temperature, particularly with high humidity.
  • Direct sun exposure.
  • Heavy clothing.
  • Lack of adequate water, rest periods and cooling-off conditions.

“Workers who are new to a worksite or returning from an absence of four or more days should gradually increase their workload and heat exposure over a week,” the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended. “When a spike in temperature or a heat wave occurs, workers lose their acclimatization to the environment, and the risk of heat stress increases.”

Acclimatization is a physical change that the body undergoes to build tolerance to heat, and it is a critical part of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities, said Michaels. “Over the past three years, lack of acclimatization was the cause in 74 percent of heat-related citations issued,” he said.

What You Can Do

Prevention is the best way to avoid heat-related illness, according to NIOSH. The agency recommends that employers establish a heat-related-illness prevention program that includes the following measures:

  • Training for supervisors and workers to prevent, recognize and treat heat-related illness.
  • Implementing a heat-acclimatization program for workers.
  • Providing for and encouraging proper hydration.
  • Establishing work/rest schedules that are appropriate for heat-stress conditions.
  • Ensuring access to shade or cool areas.
  • Monitoring workers during hot conditions.
  • Providing prompt medical attention to workers who show signs of heat-related illness.
  • Evaluating work practices continually to reduce exertion and environmental heat stress.
  • Monitoring weather reports daily and rescheduling jobs that require high heat exposure to cooler times of the day.

Workers are advised to:

  • Stay hydrated. Hydration is the most important tool in preventing heat-related illness, and workers should be well hydrated before arriving at the job site, NIOSH said.
  • Eat during lunch and other rest breaks. Food helps replace lost electrolytes.
  • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing made of materials such as cotton. Wear a wide-brimmed hat when possible.
  • Take breaks in the shade or a cool area when possible.
  • Be aware that protective clothing or personal protective equipment may increase the risk of heat stress.
  • Monitor their physical condition and that of co-workers. Tell their supervisor if they have symptoms of heat-related illness. Talk with their doctor about medications they are taking and how those may affect their heat tolerance.

Heat Illness Prevention Resources

In preparation for the summer season, OSHA has developed heat-illness educational materials in English and Spanish, as well as a curriculum to be used for workplace training, also available in both English and Spanish.

OSHA also has released a free application for mobile devices that enables workers and supervisors to monitor the heat index at their work sites. The app displays a risk level for workers based on the heat index, as well as reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level. Available for Android-based platforms and the iPhone, the app can be downloaded in English and Spanish.

OSHA worked closely with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and adapted materials from that state’s precedent-setting heat-illness campaign.

Cal/OSHA announced that it will target outdoor agriculture, construction and landscaping worksites throughout the summer for inspections to ensure that employees and managers are trained about heat illness prevention, worksites are equipped with plenty of cool, fresh water and a shaded area, and that workers are acclimatizing to high heat.

Special procedures are also required in California when temperatures reach 95 degrees. At these times, supervisors must take extra precautions, such as:

  • Observing workers for signs and symptoms of heat illness.
  • Reminding workers to drink water frequently.
  • Providing close supervision of workers in the first 14 days of their employment to ensure acclimatization.
  • Having effective communication systems in place to be able to summon emergency assistance if necessary.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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