Pandemic and Heat Create Workplace Risks

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. August 2, 2021
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a construction worker working on a roof beneath the sun

Employees who are uncomfortable wearing masks in facilities without air conditioning, assigned long shifts due to the pandemic or unaccustomed to high temperatures know the challenges of working in this summer's heat.

"Existing heat illness prevention programs can be tailored to the unique issues of working during the COVID-19 pandemic," said John Ho, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor in New York City.

He noted that these pandemic-related issues include:

  • The use of face coverings that can inhibit the body's normal way of reducing heat, such as sweating, and make breathing difficult.
  • Employees assigned longer shifts in the heat to catch up on work slowed down by shutdowns or other pandemic-related reasons.
  • Skipping heat acclimatization for new or returning workers.
  • Increased physical activity if employees must do more than their usual job tasks due to social distancing requirements.
  • Loss of the body's natural adaptation to heat when employees have been off work more than a week.

"Due to the tight labor market, many employers are bringing in new or returning workers who are not used to working in the heat," said Adam Young and Mark Lies, attorneys with Seyfarth in Chicago, in an e-mail. "New and returning workers who are not used to the physical stresses of the job face the greatest risks of heat illness."

Employers that don't enforce a heat illness prevention program can wind up with sick workers and fatalities at worksites. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) noted that in July 2020, 35-year-old Timothy Barber collapsed at the end of his shift after working on the Genesee River Bridge Project in Geneseo, N.Y. Treated for heat stress and heat exhaustion, he died from hyperthermia. It was his second day on the job.

An OSHA investigation into Barber's death found that he had been performing light-duty work, sorting bolts in temperatures that exceeded 90 degrees. Working alone without shade, he had no water and was not acclimated to the heat. OSHA determined that his employer failed to train him against extreme heat hazards.

"No family should have to suffer a loss that is completely preventable," said his parents, James and Kathy Barber.

Heat Illness Prevention Program

OSHA said supervisors and workers should follow a heat illness prevention program that:

  • Provides workers with water, rest and shade.
  • Allows new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they build a tolerance for working in the heat.
  • Plans for emergencies and trains workers on heat hazards and appropriate first-aid measures.
  • Monitors workers for signs of illness and takes prompt action if symptoms occur.

Symptoms of excessive heat exposure include heat stroke, heat stress, cramps, headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, heavy sweating and confusion. Occupational factors that may contribute to heat illness include high temperature and humidity, low fluid consumption, direct sun exposure, lack of shade, limited air movement, physical exertion, or use of bulky protective clothing and equipment.

Ho recommended that employers institute a buddy system and train employees to recognize signs of heat stress in themselves and co-workers.

Bill Principe, an attorney with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete in Atlanta, said if an employee shows signs of heat illness, a manager or co-worker should:

  • Take the employee to a shaded or cool place to rest.
  • Loosen the employee's clothing and remove the employee's shoes and socks.
  • Wet and fan the employee's skin.
  • Put ice packs in the employee's armpits and on the employee's neck and head.
  • If necessary, soak the employee's clothes with water.
  • Give the employee water.

"When any symptoms are present, promptly provide appropriate first aid," Ho said. "Do not try to diagnose which illness is occurring. Diagnosis can be difficult because symptoms of multiple heat-related illnesses can occur together. When in doubt, call 911."

A heat illness prevention program should be written and incorporate what an employer will do if someone experiences symptoms, said Benjamin Kim, an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Los Angeles. For example, when calling 911, how will the employer direct the ambulance to where the worker is? If the employee is in agriculture or construction, Kim noted, the worker's location may not be obvious.

Take steps to avoid heat stroke or heat exhaustion in the first place. Have safety meetings on hot days, Kim recommended. Instill a culture in which workers are encouraged to work safely and avoid the severe symptoms of heat illness.

Under California law, a person experiencing heat-illness symptoms is allowed a minimum of five minutes to recover; there is no maximum time limit. That recovery time is paid, to encourage the person to rest, drink water or electrolyte drinks, and get in the shade.

Make sure there's enough water at the jobsite. Some worksites don't have plumbing, so wearable hydration packs or vests might be needed, Kim added.

"Wearing loose, light clothing and a hat outside and ensuring inside temperatures are cool is critically important," said David Epstein, SHRM-SCP, director of domestic human resources with Doctors Without Borders in New York City.

OSHA's Approach

While federal OSHA does not have a specific standard addressing heat illness, the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act nonetheless applies. Minnesota, Oregon and Washington have heat illness standards, in addition to California. Oregon's is under a temporary emergency rule.

"OSHA is in the process of developing a standard that would address heat illness," Principe said.

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

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