Workplace Heat Stress, Part 4: Preventing Dangerous Conditions

Even in Physical Jobs, Heat-Related Illness Is Preventable

As summer temperatures continue to soar to dangerous levels, it’s becoming more important for everyone to be aware of the dangers of extreme heat. For those of us who still have to work during hot days, especially those who do physical labor or work outdoors, heat-related illness is a constant concern.

If caught early enough, heat-related illness may be minimized and the worst effects avoided, but delayed treatment can cause high body temperatures to cascade into other long-lasting conditions or disabilities. The best way to avoid some of the more serious consequences (including liver or kidney failure, brain damage, or even death) is to avoid heat stress in the first place. Here are some essential workplace practices that lower the risk of heat-related illnesses.

Know What You’re Up Against

Especially to those of us who are used to hot temperatures and high humidity levels, heat may seem like it’s not much of a threat—after all, we deal with it all the time. What you may not know is that when the heat index reaches 103 degrees or above, performing regular activities may cause dangerous overheating. Heat index doesn’t just refer to the number on your thermometer; it accounts for both the air temperature and humidity, which can have a huge impact on how your body responds to heat.

Employers have a responsibility to educate workers on all aspects of job safety, and that includes how to recognize and avoid heat-related illness. This training should be given to all supervisors, as well as anyone who works in conditions that may lead to dangerous heat. A thorough training includes:

  • Information about heat-related illnesses and their symptoms
  • Procedures to follow if heat-related illness occurs
  • Professional hydration and rest recommendations for dangerous heat days
  • Additional risk factors for heat-related illness, whether related to the job or to pre-existing medical conditions among workers.

Hydration & Rest Breaks Aren’t Optional

It’s not enough for employers to preach the necessity of getting plenty of water and rest and then have operations return to normal. They must, at the very least, provide the means for employees to follow these guidelines; diligent employers may add mandatory breaks into your workday to ensure the safety of all team members.

OSHA recommends:

  • Drinking at least 1 cup (8 fl oz.) of cool water every 15-20 minutes, even if you’re not thirsty
  • Drinking sports drinks or other beverages that help replenish electrolytes if you are performing physical labor for 2 or more hours
  • Taking hourly breaks that last long enough to cool off (the frequency and duration of these breaks should change relative to conditions)
  • Resting in places that are shaded, air-conditioned, or have other cooling amenities such as fans

New employees or people used to working in different climates or conditions are at a higher risk of heat-related illness until they acclimate to their new job. These employees should be allowed extra allowances for rest and water, and, if possible, be given shorter schedules and easier tasks for their first fortnight of work.

Change What Work Looks Like

If by 2050 Georgia averages three months’ worth of dangerous heat days each year as predicted, we may have to re-evaluate working conditions on a larger level. For instance, perhaps physical laborers could be scheduled for mornings and evenings rather than during the peak heat times that intersect with the traditional workday. Or, jobs could be restructured so each employee performs less physical labor on average, taking on jobs that require low levels of physicality while workers from other departments pitch in to finish the hard labor.

Employers should also consider the construction of workspaces: do they follow architectural best practices for buildings in high-heat areas? Are there amenities that can be added so all workers can have less extreme environments and easier access to cool resting spots? Are there protective clothing options that retain less heat than traditional equipment? Each employer will have to find their own answers to these questions, and they may vary widely depending on the type of job and the demands placed on employees.

Do Your Part to Stay Cool

Your employer must provide a safe workplace, but it’s up to you to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk for heat-related illness (aside from the dangers these illnesses bring, your employer may deny your workers’ compensation claim if they can prove you were at fault). Here’s what you can do during heat waves to keep yourself cool both on and off the job:

  • Wear clothing that helps you cool down faster by wicking sweat away
  • Wear loose white or tan clothing made of light materials
  • Wear a hat or helmet with a brim to protect your eyes from the sun
  • Set a slightly slower pace so you don’t overexert yourself
  • Wear sunscreen, and reapply it regularly
  • Eat cool foods, and stick to lighter options (salads and sandwiches) during the heat of the day
  • Avoid sugar-packed drinks, which can cause higher levels of fluid loss
  • Stay hydrated outside of work hours—your body will need all the fluids it can get when you’re under the hot sun!

Heat-Related Illness Is 100% Preventable

No one can control the weather, but each of us can make informed decisions on how we react to extreme heat. If your employers take the appropriate steps to provide a safe environment and you follow hydration and rest guidelines, you can make it through even the hottest of days without suffering a heat-related illness. If your workplace lacks the environment and culture necessary to prevent overheating, you are at risk for serious short-term and long-term injury.

Though there are no federal guidelines on heat in the workplace, OSHA’s directive to provide a workplace “free from hazards” means employers can be held liable for dangerous levels of heat and lack of protective measures. If you believe you are suffering due to heat-related illness or its complications, don’t wait to see if you have a case for workers’ compensation.

Thanks for joining the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford, LLC as we explored the dangers of heat in the workplace. If you missed any of the series, check it out now!

Reach out now if you have any questions about heat-related illness in the workplace. You can send a message online or call (770) 629-9321 to speak with an experienced lawyer today.

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