While many employers are proactive and do an excellent job training workers to prevent heat-related injuries, every year thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure, and some even die. It can happen to anyone and it can happen anywhere.
Heat related exposure includes not only heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, fainting and heat stroke, but also injuries from falls, equipment operation and accidents that occur when a worker has sweaty palms or fogged safety glasses or becomes dizzy, disoriented, or fatigued as a result of dehydration.
Here are five points that will help employers prevent heat-related injuries and illness:
1. Everyone reacts to heat differently- Some workers are more susceptible to heat than others. According to NIOSH, while workers can acclimatize themselves to different levels of heat, each worker has an upper limit for heat stress beyond which that worker can become a heat casualty. This varies by body size, state of wellness, lifestyle, etc.
2. Acclimation periods should vary by experience of worker and working conditions- To ensure workers are fully acclimatized to heat, OSHA suggests employers begin with 50 percent of the normal workload and time spent in the hot environment, gradually building up exposure and workload to 100 percent by the fifth day. However, OSHA cautions that workers performing strenuous activity, workers using heavy or non-breathable protective clothing, and workers who are new to an outdoor job need additional precautions. When Cal/OSHA investigated 25 incidents of heat related illness, in almost 50% of the cases the worker involved was on their first day of work and in 80% of the cases the worker involved had only been on the job for four or fewer days. Acclimation to hot weather is a big factor as it can take up to two weeks for a person new to outdoor work to get used to the temperature and even more for those who are overweight or have other at-risk factors.
3. Change behavior when heat index rises- All workers are at greater risk of suffering a heat-related injury or illness when there is a heat wave. It is key to make sure policies are followed at the worksite when the heat index rises.
During heat waves, air temperatures rise above normal quickly, and even experienced workers will not be able to immediately acclimatize to the new, hotter temperatures. They may minimize the early warnings of heat exhaustion, such as irritability, thirst, headache and heavy sweating, rationalizing these as “normal” in hot environments. Workers will need more breaks and rescheduling some of the harder and hotter job tasks may be needed.
4. Understand hydration- Studies show that dehydration levels of 2% of body weight or more impair visual motor tracking, short-term memory, attention and arithmetic efficiency. In addition a 23% reduction in reaction time occurs at the 4% dehydration level. Such declines in cognitive performance can significantly increase the risk of work-related accidents. Workers should be educated on the importance of proper hydration. Remind your employees that it can take up to 24 hours for the body to absorb enough fluid to fully rehydrate once they have become dehydrated.
On the job, workers should be reminded to drink water frequently before becoming thirsty in order to maintain good hydration. In addition to providing plenty of water, NIOSH encourages employers to provide urine color charts near toilet facilities. These charts show the urine colors of a hydrated person compared to a dehydrated person. The darker the urine, the more likely your body is dehydrated.
5. Have a plan- The best defense against heat-related illnesses is prevention. The good news is that resources are plentiful and costs are minimal. Train employees about heat stress, how it affects their health and safety, the warning signs and how it can be prevented.
by Tom Greco, CPCU, CIC
The UNICO team is here to help you make the right choices when it comes to risk management. Give us a call today at 402-434-7200 or visit us online at www.unicogroup.com.
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