Reducing the Dangers of
Working in the Heat

Reducing the Dangers of Working in the Heat
Gemma Bowkis
Read time: 5 minutes

Turning Up the Heat


Heat hazards have always presented unique challenges for employers. But the ongoing issue of climate change is exacerbating an age-old problem. New approaches and technologies are urgently needed to find targeted solutions for heat-related hazards.And new government directives mean employers must urgently address work compliance issues, or risk landing in hot water. 

Human Canaries in the Coalmine

The scientific consensus is clear. The earth’s climate is warming. Multiple studies into the effects of climate change have found that workers are often in the frontline of global temperature increases. In fact, the number of workers in the most affected occupations and those at risk of heat-related illnesses, is expected to increase.“Workers are often the first to be exposed to the effects of climate change for longer durations and at greater intensities than the general public. Additionally, workers are often exposed to conditions that the general public can elect to avoid.”

Dr Kristie Ebi, a professor for the Center for Health and the Global Environment said "We know from the climate science that climate change is increasing the frequency, the intensity and the duration of heat waves.”And according to the Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions: “Although climate mitigation remains critical, we must also be thinking about and planning for ways to limit the adverse impacts from unavoidable changes in our climate.”

The Harsh Reality

Thousands of American workers fall ill from heat-related hazards every year. Heat-related illnesses happen when workers can’t maintain a healthy body temperature.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to this, including:

  • The physicality of the work
  • The heat sources surrounding the employee
  • Clothing
  • PPE
  • Personal risk factors such as pre-existing health conditions
  • The environment - temperature, humidity and amount of sunlight
  • Lack of acclimization

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics (BLS), environmental heat cases resulted in an average of 35 fatalities per year and an average of 2,700 cases requiring days away from work between 2015 and 2019. But the total number of deaths caused by heat might be higher, as the cause of death listed – e.g. heart attack – can also be related to workplace heat exposure.To add to this, workers of color disproportionately make up the population of employees in essential jobs who are exposed to high levels of heat, which exacerbates socioeconomic and racial inequalities in the U.S (OSHA).Employers can’t regulate the weather, but there are still many circumstances within their control. The challenge is to learn from the past and leverage new technologies and information to help determine adverse but manageable variables.  Employers are well advised to pre-emptively seek out and implement responsive methods of adaptation to current and future heat related challenges, particularly given the new OSHA directives recently issued. 

A Degree of Prevention

In April 2022, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new directive regarding Outdoor and Indoor Heat Related Hazards. The report provides instructions, policies and procedures to implement a National emphasis Program (NEP) “to identify and eliminate or reduce worker exposures to occupational heat related illnesses and injuries.”Certain industries have been singled out for programmed inspections, as they’re known for high exposure to heat related hazards. The report’s stated intention is “to ensure that employees in high-hazard industries are protected from heat-related hazards, both indoors and outdoors, that may lead to serious illnesses, injuries, or death.”According to guidelines, OSHA compliance and safety officers will inspect sites for hazardous heat conditions, record information and act upon it. Where an employee brings a heat related hazard to their attention, this will trigger inspections conducted in accordance with the Department of Labor Field Operations Manual, This includes interviewing employees and reviewing records – indeed comprehensive record reviews may be requested. And where violations to OSHA compliance are found, follow up inspections can be expected.It would therefore benefit employers to strategize now to avoid unnecessary scrutiny which could become time consuming and costly.

Heat Related Hazards, Injuries and Illnesses Explained

According to OSHA, if the heat index is 80°F or higher, serious injuries and illnesses become more common – however heat related fatalities have occurred with a heat index below 80°F “particularly when aggravating factors are present”.One exacerbating factor is unacclimatized workers performing physical, strenuous work. Acclimatization is crucial for increasing heat tolerance as a worker who gradually increases exposure time is able to properly regulate their body temperature and minimize heat related illnesses.Government guidelines state that you should follow the 20% rule of acclimatization; ensure that employees do not work more than 20% of a shift at full heat intensity on their first day and increase time in the heat by no more than 20% each day until they have acclimatized.

Common Heat Related Hazards

Heat related hazards are problematic for many industries, both outdoor and indoor. Many indoor workplaces create heat hazards for workers - including steel and iron foundries, bakeries, commercial kitchens, chemical plants and warehouses, electrical utilities and production facilities. Outdoor workplaces with heat concerns include farms, gas and oil operations, landscaping jobs, hazardous waste removal workers and first responders to emergencies. When you factor in the rising global temperature to a sizable workforce whose job exposes them to heat hazards, illness and injury becomes a critical issue for employers. 

Signs and Symptoms

Serious heat related illnesses include:

  • Heat Stroke
  • Heat Exhaustion
  • Heat Rash
  • Fainting in the Heat known as heat syncope
  • Kidney damage
  • The environment - temperature, humidity and amount of sunlight
  • Lack of acclimization

Common occupational risk factors for heat illness include:

  • Working in warm or hot environments
  • Wearing incorrect clothing
  • Lack of acclimization
  • Strenuous physical activity
  • Kidney damage
  • The environment - temperature, humidity and amount of sunlight
  • Lack of acclimization

Common occupational risk factors for heat illness include:

  • Working in warm or hot environments
  • Wearing incorrect clothing
  • Lack of acclimatization
  • Strenuous physical activity
  • Personal risk factors

According to the recent OSHA campaign, employers and workers should be alert for signs such as slurred speech, seizures, loss of consciousness and unusual or abnormal thinking or behaviour. Being alert to the dangers of heat related injuries and illnesses, and ensuring the correct training is provided helps employers devise health and safety strategies. Personal risk factors can also lower a worker’s tolerance to heat. 

These include (but are not limited to):

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Some doctor prescribed medications
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Pregnancy

Employers have a responsibility to factor in all relevant issues when choosing working conditions and prevention plans for their employees.

The Criteria for a Recommended Standard

This OSHA report can be seen as a useful resource for employers. Heat hazards are complex, and can be problematic to manage, and employers want to do the right thing for their employees.  Referenced within the OSHA report is The Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments, issued by the CDC.This is an invaluable reference for workforce representatives and employers when considering safety standards and health and safety training.

OSHA guidelines state that employees are entitled to:

  • Receive workplace safety and health training in a language they understand
  • Work on safe machines
  • Receive required safety equipment, such as gloves or a harness and lifeline for falls
  • Be protected from toxic chemicals
  • Request an OSHA inspection, and speak to the inspector
  • Report an injury or illness, and get copies of medical records
  • Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses
  • See results of tests for workplace hazards

For further guidelines on the Fundamentals of a Workplace First-Aid Program, employers can also refer to the OSHA Best Practices Guide.The guide states that as part of a comprehensive safety and health management system employers should assign and train first aid providers and design and implement first-aid programs that “aim to minimize the outcome of accidents or exposure”.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Heat hazards are complex but heat-related illness is preventable, especially with management commitment to providing the most effective controls.

OSHA offers a comprehensive guide to the risks of working in the heat and the steps that employers must take to prevent the negative impacts of heat exposure.
An overview of these steps are:

  • Over 70 percent of heat-related deaths occur during a worker’s first week (OSHA, Tustin 2018)
  • Allowing for acclimatization for new workers is one of the most important preventative measures that employers can take
  • OSHA and NIOSH recommend the "Rule of 20 percent" for building heat tolerance
  • Determine, for each worker throughout each workday, whether total heat stress is too high, both from the conditions of that day and recognizing carryover effect possibilities
  • OSHA’s Heat Stress Calculator can also be used to determine whether a worker’s heat stress is above recommended limits
  • Supervisors and workers should receive comprehensive trained about heat hazards and should also learn about prevention and first aid
  • Engineering controls should be implemented where possible to make the work environment cooler and to reduce manual workload with mechanization
  • At locations that cannot be cooled by engineering control, employers should modify work practices when heat stress is too high to work safely
  • In some limited situations, special PPE cooling devices can protect workers in hot environments
  • OSHA encourages providing sufficient water, rest, and shade as prevention as well as treatment for heat-related illness
  • Ensure at least 1 quart/hour/employee for the entire shift
  • Schedule and enforce water and rest breaks
  • Ensure shade is present or available (a running vehicle with the air-conditioning on can serve as shade)

In The Palm of Employees' Hands

Armed with preventative knowledge and robust heat illness prevention plans, EHS leaders can be forgiven for thinking the workforce is protected from the impacts of extreme heat. However, with ever-shifting regulations and other variables, communicating accurate, critical heat safety information to the employees at most risk can also pose complex challenges. This is where organizations are leveraging mobile technology to support their efforts.A mobile communication channel designed for your unique requirements can facilitate the sharing of weather condition alerts and other critical preventative plans quickly and efficiently and make training documentation and other vital records easily accessible.When different states have different standards for heat exposure, sharing location-specific information is vital. Mobile can break down huge amounts of information and segment it — meaning that you can share specific, nuanced information with the right employees. In a crisis, a mobile phone is often the first and only thing a person will reach for. So it’s understandable why businesses are looking to mobile technology to put life-saving tools and information in their workforces pockets.

Tools for Transformation

When it comes to heat and extreme weather related occupational hazards, preventative plans must be easily adaptable to the many variables, and there are a range of mobile specific tools that are supporting EHS and Compliance leaders looking to improve their processes, such as ReadyKey. 

Some of the capabilities of ReadyKey’s powerful technology: 

  • Resource Sharing - Provide internal & external resources and relevant, accurate location-specific information that is easily accessible in an intuitive, elegant mobile app
  • Push Notifications - Send immediate or scheduled push notifications to alert workers of weather hazards, notify of changes to guidance, remind to review action plans and more.
  • Multiple Language Support - Easily provide content in multiple languages to ensure inclusivity across the workforce and stay compliant with OSHA’s training standards policy.
  • Quizzes, Forms & Surveys - Provide interactive training materials, gather on-the-ground information and feedback, allow for incident reporting and more with versatile mobile form technology.
  • Offline Access - Workers don’t have to rely on internet connection to be able to access critical information with native content that is available offline anytime, anywhere.

In the Hot Seat

With rising global temperatures, the risk of heat related illnesses expected to increase, and government crackdowns on OSHA workplace compliance, it’s never been more vital for employers to access and leverage critical information and resources around heat hazards.Future proofing your workplace with accessible mobile technology to track key information, decrease complexity and increase efficiency can take some of the stress out of OSHA compliance and employers’ duties to their workers. The only constant in life is change. How employers rise to meet the challenges of a changing environment will determine their continued viability and impact the lives of those who rely on them, the general public and workers alike, into the future. Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Plan for success by leveraging the most successful technologies and look forward to an ever-changing world without trepidation. Scale your business and protect the future for you, your workplace and your workers. Because your future success depends on your present decisions.

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