It’s summertime! And while many of us celebrate warmer temperatures with picnics and trips to the beach, millions of workers who toil outdoors are feeling the heat. And that doesn’t mean they are simply uncomfortable. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1992 and 2017, over 800 workers in the U.S.died due to exposure to extreme heat, including six who died in July 2017 alone.
What Is Extreme Heat?
OSHA does not have a recognized standard for what constitutes “extreme heat,” nor does it issue guidelines as to temperatures to which outdoor workers should not be exposed. It does, however, state that employers must protect workers from all on-the-job safety hazards, which, naturally, includes heat stress.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, extreme heat is any period of 2 days or longer during which temperatures reach 90 degrees or above and humidity is high. But these are national guidelines issued to promote public safety. They don’t apply to workers who are doing hard physical labor in high temperatures and/or humidity under a hot sun.
Perhaps the most applicable heat benchmark for employees who work outdoors comes from California’s Department of Industrial Relations (Cal/OSHA), which in 2015 instituted new guidelines to employers for preventing heat stress. Those guidelines set an outdoor temperature of 80 degrees as the threshold at which employers are required to implement protective measures for people who are working outdoors.
Why Is Heat So Dangerous?
We all know how uncomfortable we are when temperatures are high. But most of us can mitigate that discomfort by taking common-sense steps to cool off. We limit our physical activity and wear lighter-weight clothes. We drink lots of fluids and stay out of the hot sun. We step into air-conditioned spaces when we can. In other words, we take steps to generate less heat and allow our body’s normal cooling mechanism (the evaporation of sweat) to do its job.
Outside workers, on the other hand, face conditions that increase rather than mitigate heat stress. First, they generate more heat because they are working at a strenuous jobs (construction, agriculture, logging, for example.) And they are often working in the hot sun, which can make the air feel 10 to 15 degrees hotter than in the shade. Protective gear, including hardhats and reflective vests, further diminish the body’s ability to cool itself by limiting the evaporation of sweat. High humidity further exacerbates this problem, since perspiration will evaporate more slowly if the air is damp. One example: At 40 percent relative humidity and an ambient temperature of 92 it “feels like” 94. But when the relative humidity is 85 percent, that same temperature feels like 126 degrees.
And, again, extreme heat isn’t just about comfort. As the body loses its ability to cool itself, the person’s core temperature begins to rise. At this happens, the likelihood of heat-related illness increases exponentially. These can range from heat exhaustion (profuse sweating, nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps, headache) to life-threatening heat stroke.
How to Protect Workers from Extreme Heat
Although California’s guidelines don’t apply to the rest of the nation, employers who want to protect their outdoor workers from extreme heat may find that they are an excellent place to start. They include the provision of:
- Training: Employees who work outdoors in the heat should be educated about the signs of heat-related illness and how to keep themselves and their coworkers safe.
- Shade: California requires employers to erect shade structures if natural shade sufficient to allow all workers on the job site access is not available. Shade must be provided if the air temperature is 80 degrees or higher. If meeting this requirement is impractical, the employer may use alternative measures (e.g.cool misters) as long as Cal/OSHA approves.
- Fresh, cool, potable water: Employees who are working in extreme heat should drink at least 1 quart (four 8 ounce glasses) of water per hour. Place water strategically throughout the work area rather than having one or two water stations available. Instruct supervisors to remind employees that they need to drink.
- Adequate rest periods in a shady or air-conditioned area as needed and mandatory 10-minute rest periods every 2 hours if temperatures exceed 95 degrees.
- Direct supervision of employees by a supervisor trained to recognize heat-related injury if the temperature exceeds 95 degrees.
Additionally, employers should be aware that new workers are at a much higher risk of heat injury than those who have been exposed to high heat conditions for some time. In 2005, Cal/OSHA investigated 25 cases of heat-related illness and found that in 50 percent of the cases it was the worker’s first day on the job. In 80 percent of the cases, the worker had been employed for only a few days. Thus, its very important to introduce new or returning workers to a hot environment gradually.
The Carmoon Group, Ltd. is a family-owned insurance brokerage headquartered in Hicksville, New York. Through our large network of insurance affiliates, we offer business insurance and risk management solutions to companies all across the United States. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment for your insurance review. Or if you prefer, reach out online and we will get back to you at a convenient time