With warm weather just around the corner for much of the country, now is the time to review risk factors and preventative strategies for heat related illness. Importantly, employers are responsible for protecting workers from heat related illness under OSHA regulations, as extreme heat falls under the umbrella of occupational safety hazards. In the following, we will discuss individual and environmental risk factors for heat related illness as well as the role that employers and employees play in mitigating this risk. We will do so using key takeaways from the Axiom Medical article, “Workplace Heat-Related Injuries,” by Chitra Goel.
Extreme heat poses a serious threat to occupational health and safety. The article states, “Heat stress can sometimes be fatal when exhaustion leads to severe lethargy and a sudden heatstroke. If not directly, heat can also indirectly affect your workers’ health and increase the risk of injuries due to sweaty palms, dizziness, and lethargy.” In other words, extreme heat lowers overall safety by impacting a variety of factors. Common heat related illnesses include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.
Heat cramps are characterized by cramps, muscle pain, tightness, and exhaustion. Heat cramps are often a precursor to a more severe illness. Therefore, they should not be ignored.
Heat Exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps. In addition to symptoms associated with heat cramps, heat exhaustion is characterized by dizziness, headache, fast heart rate or breathing, extreme thirst, nausea or vomiting, heavy sweating, and pale skin. Heat exhaustion can also affect mood and cognition, causing confusion, irritability, or fainting.
Heatstroke is the most severe form of heat related illness and can quickly turn fatal without emergency care. In addition to the above symptoms, heatstroke is characterized by a body temperature over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, rapid breathing, rapid or weak pulse, hot and dry or sweaty skin, seizures, lightheadedness, and loss of consciousness.
Not everyone is at equal risk of acquiring heat related illness. While it is possible for anyone working in hot environments to be affected, individuals who are 65 or older, overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or are not acclimated to working in high temperatures are at the greatest risk.
With the above in mind, what must employers and employees do to reduce the risk of heat related illness and injury?
Employers must train and prepare employees who work in extreme heat. Training should cover signs of heat related illness, preventative strategies, and response strategies. Employers must ensure that employees are provided adequate water, shade, and rest in order to avoid heat related illness. They must also provide a work schedule that allows for employees to become acclimated to working in extreme heat. Finally, employers should monitor employees for signs of heat related illness and must provide emergency healthcare services when necessary.
Employees also play an important role in preventing heat related illness and injury. Employees must follow safety protocol set in place to protect workers from injury and illness. When working in extreme heat, they must wear proper clothing, rest often, and stay hydrated. Employees should also consider their personal risk factors for heat related illness and must address symptoms as soon as they occur.
Maintaining a safe and healthy work environment is everybody’s responsibility. Employers and employees must work together to establish and carry out policies that will maximize safety and job performance. Employees often play an important role in identifying and addressing safety concerns. Employers should encourage employees to share their concerns so that potentially unsafe working conditions can be altered before illness or injury occurs. One way to encourage employees to speak up is to utilize a reporting mechanism such as Red Flag Reporting. Work environments are safest when everyone takes ownership in doing the right thing.
Want to know more about preventing workplace injuries and illnesses? See our article here.