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Protecting Workers in the Heat: Ensuring Safety in Outdoor Employment

Summer solstice 2023 arrived on June 21 with extreme heat across much of the country, putting those who work for a living outside in jeopardy of heat-related illnesses.

“The heat wave has been searing a large chunk of the U.S., from West Texas to Florida. High humidity has been driving the "feels like" heat index even higher, increasing the health risks,” reported NPR.

Ensuring safety in outdoor employment can have life-and-death stakes.

“Dehydration and exposure to chronic heat can have serious health impacts for outdoor workers, ranging from heat stroke and heat sickness to more serious kidney and heart issues,” reported the Miami Herald. “In a 2017 study, researchers measured body temperature, heart rate, and hydration levels of Florida agricultural workers and found they were often seriously dehydrated. Four in five of the workers experienced core body temperatures over 100 degrees on at least one day of the study — the medical threshold for serious heat injury. One in three workers had an acute kidney injury, an extreme consequence of dehydration.”

Hot Take: Heat Exposure Leads to Worker Fatalities, Injuries

The consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen released a report in May that says heat exposure is responsible for as many as 2,000 worker fatalities in the U.S. each year and up to 170,00 workers are injured in heat stress-related accidents annually.

Some of the key findings of the report:

  • There is a 1 percent increase in workplace injuries for every increase of 1 degree Celsius.
  • The physical and mental capacity of workers to function drops significantly as heat and humidity increase as productivity of workers declines approximately 2.6 percent per degree Celsius above a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) of 24 degrees Celsius (75.2F). The WBGT combines temperature, relative humidity, radiant heat sources, and wind speed.
  • Workplace heat stress can cost employers in terms of absenteeism, turnover, and overtime due to worker illness or injury as well as reduced worker productivity, damage to machinery and property from workplace accidents, and increased workers’ comp premiums, lawsuits, and loss of public trust and customers.

“The right to a safe workplace is a basic human right. Exposure to excessive heat is one of the most dangerous problems facing workers today,” said the report.

Those High-Risk Jobs for Heat-Related Issues

Certain occupations are particularly prone to heat-related problems. These jobs often involve extended periods of direct sun exposure or physically demanding work, which increases the risk of heat-related illnesses.

Some of the high-risk jobs for heat-related issues include:

  • Roofing Professionals: Roofing professionals work under direct sunlight, often wearing protective gear and handling materials that absorb and radiate heat. The combination of physical labor and high temperatures puts them at risk of heat-related illnesses.
  • Road Construction Workers: Construction sites, particularly road construction projects, expose workers to intense heat due to the asphalt and machinery. These workers often perform physically demanding tasks and are vulnerable to heat-related issues.
  • Landscapers and Groundskeepers: Professionals in landscaping and groundskeeping spend long hours working outdoors, performing physically demanding tasks such as mowing lawns, trimming hedges, and maintaining gardens. The combination of physical exertion and heat exposure increases their susceptibility to heat-related problems.
  • Agricultural Workers: Farmworkers and agricultural laborers frequently work in open fields under the sun. They engage in physically demanding activities like harvesting crops, tending livestock, and operating machinery, which can lead to heat-related issues if proper precautions are not taken.
  • Event Staff: Individuals working at outdoor events, such as festivals, concerts, or sports events, often face prolonged exposure to high temperatures while setting up stages, arranging equipment, or managing crowds. These workers are at risk of heat-related illnesses due to their extended time spent outdoors and the physical demands of event preparations.

It's important to recognize that these occupations represent a small subset of outdoor jobs that can pose heat-related risks. Employers in all industries must prioritize the safety and well-being of their workers, especially when working in high-temperature environments.

The Dangers of Working Outside in the Heat

Working in high temperatures can lead to several health hazards, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion is characterized by excessive sweating, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and headaches. If left untreated, it can progress to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition that can cause organ damage, seizures, and even death.

Prolonged exposure to heat can also exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases and respiratory disorders.

Even though heat-related illnesses and death are preventable, the CDC reports that “heat-related deaths are one of the deadliest weather-related outcomes in the United States”.

Do You Know the Warning Signs of Heat-Related Illness?

Workers and supervisors should be aware of the warning signs that indicate a person may be suffering from heat-related illness. These signs include:

  • Profuse sweating
  • Weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Muscle cramps
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Fainting

When the body overheats, it struggles to regulate its internal temperature, leading to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and compromised organ function.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can quickly progress, making it crucial to identify symptoms early and provide prompt medical attention.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke:

  • Heat Exhaustion is caused by prolonged exposure to high temperatures and inadequate fluid intake. Heat Stroke is caused by the failure of the body’s heat-regulating system, often resulting from untreated heat exhaustion.
  • Heat Exhaustion Symptoms include excessive sweating, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, headache, muscle cramps, and pale skin. Heat Stroke Symptoms include a high body temperature (usually above 104 degrees F), hot and dry skin, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations, seizures, and loss of consciousness.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Skin may feel cool and moist. Heat Stroke: Skin may feel hot and dry.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Body temperature is usually elevated but below 104 degrees. Heat Stroke: Body temperature is significantly elevated, exceeding 104 degrees.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Thirst is common. Heat Stroke: Lack of thirst due to impaired ability to regulate body fluids.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Mental confusion or mild disorientation may be present. Heat Stroke: Severe mental confusion or disorientation, irritability, and possible behavioral changes.  
  • Heat Exhaustion: Prompt medical attention and treatment can prevent it from progressing to heat stroke. Heat Stroke: This is a medical emergency requiring immediate intervention to prevent organ damage and potentially fatal complications.

Best Practices to Keep Employees Safe in the Heat

To ensure the safety and well-being of workers in hot environments, employers should implement the following best practices:

  • Provide Training: Educate employees about heat-related risks, recognition of symptoms, and prevention measures.
  • Schedule Breaks: Implement frequent rest breaks in shaded or air-conditioned areas to allow workers to cool down and rehydrate.
  • Hydration: Encourage workers to drink plenty of water and electrolyte-rich fluids. Provide easy access to water sources and remind employees to stay hydrated throughout the workday.
  • Modify Work Schedules: Adjust work hours to avoid the hottest times of the day, if possible. Consider rescheduling physically demanding tasks for cooler periods.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Evaluate the necessity of certain PPE items (e.g., heavy protective clothing) in hot conditions and explore alternatives or additional measures to mitigate heat stress.
  • Shade and Ventilation: Provide shaded rest areas or canopies where workers can take breaks. Improve airflow with fans or ventilation systems to reduce the heat index.
  • Monitoring and Supervision: Regularly assess workers' well-being and encourage a buddy system to spot early signs of heat-related issues. Ensure supervisors are trained to respond effectively to emergencies.

Other tips from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Heat Illness Prevention campaign includes:

  • Eat smaller meals before work activities in the heat.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
  • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing – cotton is good.
  • Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize or build a tolerance for working in the heat.

Particular attention should be paid to workers moving into warm environments for the first time or the onset of unusual heat.

“Most outdoor fatalities, 50 percent to 70 percent, occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time,” says OSHA.

For many industries, such as agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas, and delivery, workers will need to be outside in the heat, so paying close attention to the safety tips and constantly monitoring workers' health is key.