Each year thousands of workers across the nation become ill when exposed to excessive heat. Approximately 50 to 70 percent of heat illness cases happen during the first few days of working in warm or hot weather. Some examples of heat illness include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat rash.
Heavy activity, lack of time to adjust to the new conditions, or wearing clothes that hold in body heat can increase the risk of heat illness. If you have employees that work outdoors, here are some things you need to provide to help protect them from heat illness:
1. Plenty of drinking water that is
- Free of charge
- As close as possible to where the employee is working
- Suitably cool
For proper hydration, provide one quart of water per hour for each employee. For example, a 10-person crew working an 8-hour shift requires 80 quarts or 20 gallons of water (4 quarts per gallon). Use the following formula to determine how much water your crew needs:
Number of people x number of hours worked x 1 quart per hour x .25 (to convert from quarts to gallons) = number of gallons per shift.
If you can’t provide the water all at once, make sure to replenish throughout the day. More importantly, encourage your employees to drink it on a regular basis, even if they aren’t thirsty. And, remind your employees that when it comes to hydration, water is the best option. According to Cal/OSHA, sodas, energy drinks, and coffee contain high levels of caffeine and/or sugar that can actually increase the chance of dehydration.
2. Plenty of shade
Allow and encourage employees to take a cool-down rest period whenever they need one. Shade must be as close as possible to where your employees are working and there must be enough shade to accommodate everyone taking a break or rest period. Cool-down rest periods should last at least five minutes and it’s important to keep an eye on employees who have visible signs or report symptoms of heat illness and provide first aid or emergency response if necessary.
If outdoor temperatures are above 80 degrees or if an employee requests it regardless of the temperature, you must have shade available. Buildings or trees can provide shade for your workers. Use pop-up canopies or shade trailers if natural shade is not available.
3. An emergency plan
If an employee displays symptoms of heat illness, help them right away. Coworkers need to be ready to act immediately. Some of the steps they can take include:
- Call for emergency medical response.
- If in a remote area, send someone out to the entrance area to guide emergency crews when they arrive.
- Monitor the affected worker and provide assistance, such as first aid, help them cool off with cool towels or fans, elevate their feet, loosen heavy clothing, etc.
- Help them find water and either shade or an air conditioned room or structure if possible.
- Notify management of the situation.
Talk to your employees about what is in your emergency response plan and make sure all employees, including supervisors, are trained on your plan.
4. A plan to help your employees adjust to the conditions
It can take up to 14 days for workers to adjust to the heat and it is important to train employees on how to do that. Below are steps you can take to help your employees get used to the heat:
- Reduce the intensity of the workload or shift length.
- Consider starting the workday earlier and make sure to provide frequent breaks for employees.
- Gradually increase the duties as employees get used to the conditions.
- Remind employees to wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing unless they're working near heavy machinery.
During a heat wave, monitor all employees—especially new staff, those returning from extended leave, and those moving to the area from a cooler climate.
5. Heat illness prevention training
If there is a risk of heat illness, all employees must be trained before they begin work. The training needs to be specific to your heat illness plan and procedures. Training should cover the following:
- How your employees can recognize heat illness symptoms in themselves and in coworkers
- The environmental factors that are present at your workplace, e.g. temperature and humidity
- What the different types of heat illness are
- How to execute your emergency plan, including first aid, as referenced above
If you have an employee that has a health condition such as diabetes, is pregnant, has heart issues or asthma, you may need to consult with them “one on one” as they may be subjected to a higher risk of heat illness and may need to take additional precautions.
Take the time to work with your employees on identifying heat index levels and hourly forecasts each day. A new app is available for Android and Apple devices that provides this information.
6. A written heat illness prevention plan
Having a heat illness prevention plan is not only important for the health of your employees; it’s also required by law. The plan must be in writing in both English and the language understood by the majority of your employees. The plan must be made available at your workplace and outline specific procedures for providing:
- Sufficient water
- Access to shade
- Emergency response procedures
- Adjusting to the heat
- Training on how to prevent heat illness
Some industries are required to implement high heat procedures when temperatures reach or exceed 95 degrees. These procedures include increased monitoring of all employees for alertness and heat illness symptoms, conducting a pre-shift meeting to review the signs and symptoms of heat illness, and requiring employees to take a minimum 10-minute preventive cool-down rest period every two hours. Even if your industry isn’t covered by these high heat requirements, consider using them.
Working in the heat takes a toll on your workers. Help them stay safe by reviewing your heat illness prevention plan at your next safety meeting.