Paul Moomjean, Contributor
Each year, thousands of employees suffer the adverse effects of heat stress. Employers and employees need to know how to recognize and prevent heat stress, as well as their rights to work in a safe and productive workplace. Heat-related health problems can vary from dehydration to potential skin cancer. Understanding the impact and the solutions are crucial to all involved and must be taken seriously before irreversible trends take place.
It is important to be aware of the illnesses and conditions, as well as be aware how to treat the symptoms. Not only are their ethical and moral concerns, there are protentional legal issues as well. Don’t sweat it though, as here is a clear breakdown of what needs to be looked out for and how to prevent the workers you care about from being affected.
Illnesses and Conditions to Look Out For
Heat stroke is considered one of the gravest heat-related illness. When the body becomes unable to control its temperature, the body’s temperature rises rapidly. Some of the scariest effects include the sweating mechanism in the body failing, and pretty soon the body is unable to cool down. The body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10-15 minutes.
Symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Confused mental status, slurred speech
- Potential coma
- Hot, dry skin
- Excessive sweating
- High body temperature
Heat syncope can create fainting episodes or dizziness that occurs with lengthy jobs requiring standing or sudden rising from the sitting or lying position. Dehydration and lack of acclimatization are other fears to look out for.
Symptoms of heat syncope include:
- Short fainting spurts
Workers who sweat a lot during activities can be most prone to heat cramps. This type of excessive sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels. In case you didn’t know, low salt levels in muscles causes painful cramps. Just be aware, heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
Symptoms of heat cramps include:
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle pain or spasms
- Abdomen, arm or leg pain
Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. This will be visible, for the most part. Make sure workers are covered properly while working in the heat. Most often, heat rash symptoms appear on the neck, the groin, under the breasts, upper chest areas and elbow creases.
Symptoms of heat rash include:
- Red cluster of pimples
- Small blisters
Now that you know what to look for, let’s look at the proper equipment for preventing heat-related conditions.
While working in extreme heat or even moderate heat environments, using proper PPE is a way to provide supplemental protection. While each industry has their own regulated personal protective equipment, there are certain resources that can reduce heat stress.
- Fire proximity suits
- Water-cooled garments
- Air-cooled garments
- Cooling vests
- Wetted over-garments
- Sun hats
- Light colored clothing
While you might not think your company will be affected by heat stress, every company should have a heat stress plan. Beside the ethical and moral reasons, one main reason is that lawsuits and fines can destroy a company.
Lawsuits and OSHA
Even though OSHA doesn’t have a heat stress standard, you can still be cited for failing to have a heat stress plan. There is a very frightening story about Sturgill Roofing Inc. of Ohio. Back in 2012, the company was hired to replace a roof. To cut back on costs, Sturgill hired a crew of employees from a temp agency to fill out the required amount of workers.
One temp, a 60-year-old man, was sent to fix a bank roof. He had only been working in an air-conditioned indoor environment for about three years. But he lied and told the foreman he had roofing experience. Believing him, the foreman didn’t request references or ask where he’d worked before. This was a recipe for disaster.
On that hot, 90-degree day, the temp showed up a 6:30 a.m. The foreman showed him where water coolers were located, and it was suggested to use the stacked roofing materials as shade during the day.
The foreman was a decent guy; in fact, he also told the temp if he wanted a break it would be fine and that he wouldn’t be upset. While well-intentioned, the foreman provided no additional training on how to handle heat stress.
One thing the foreman didn’t address was that the temp was wearing all-black clothing. He allowed him to continue working, even though he told the temp later he was supposed to wear “light clothing” in this type of work.
Even though the foreman appointed him to less strenuous work on the roof, like taking materials in a cart; lifting them over a 39-in-high parapet wall; and tossing them into a dump truck, disaster was on the horizon. After the employees got a 15-minute morning break around 9 a.m., another worker offered a 44-oz cup of ice water to the temp; the man rejected the offering.
Right after the morning break, the 60-year old temp showed signs of heat-related illness. The foreman noted him sweating excessively, but the temp brushed it off, saying he was fine.
Later during the day, the other workers asked the foreman to check in on him. Unfortunately, the foreman said he seemed fine. However, 15 minutes later, the foreman saw the older worker’s body tell a different story as he observed him walk clumsily.
By 11:40 a.m. the temp collapsed on the roof, shaking. Quickly, the foreman called 911. One co-worker began CPR, and the foreman wet down the shaking man’s clothing.
The emergency responders found the temp in the direct sunlight. He was rushed to the nearby hospital with a body temperature of 105.4°. He remained in the hospital for 21 days and died on Aug. 22, 2012. The coroner’s report stated he died from a heat stroke.
When the 60-year old man’s death was reported, OSHA fined Sturgill a total fine of $8,820. OSHA discovered the company had a very relaxed break and hydration plan.
Solutions and Best Practices
Getting fined should not be one’s main motivation to reduce fatalities, but those fines can prevent businesses from growing. Solutions and resources are available. OSHA has a lot of valuable resources about the dangers of working in hot weather, through its “Water. Rest. Shade.” campaign. Here are four clear objectives to meet every time workers are in the heat:
- Drink water every 15 minutes
- Rest in the shade to cool down periodically
- Make sure workers wear a hat and light-colored clothing
- Managers must monitor co-workers for any signs of problems
NIOSH and OSHA joined forces on a heat safety mobile app called the Heat Safety Tool to measure heat index values and project heat indices during the workday.
Safety first sounds like a cliché to many, but it is the cliché most needed on the job site to maintain a workplace that protects the company, the managers and the workers. WMHS