This summer temperatures have been, and are expected to continue to be well above average. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that “workers who are suddenly exposed to working in a hot environment face additional, but generally avoidable hazards to their safety and health” and explains that “some workers might be at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions (1).” This can include new workers, temporary workers, or those returning to work after a week or more off. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a significant number of heat-related fatalities occur during the first 3 days of working on the job (2).
In 2014, 2,630 workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died from heat stroke and related causes (3). Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness from heat stress with symptoms ranging from confusion to loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment, heat stroke could turn deadly. Other heat illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash, are important warning signs of excess exposure to heat (4). Exposure to excessive heat while working in hot conditions or performing strenuous tasks can result in occupational illnesses and reduced productivity. Similar to a car overheating, a body can overheat when it generates or absorbs more heat than it disperses, inhibiting a worker’s ability to maintain a core body temperature (5). Additionally, an increased risk of occupational injuries and accidents resulting from exposure to workplace heat is well documented (6). For example, sweaty palms or dizziness could prove extremely dangerous depending on a worker’s specific job task.
Factors that Increase Risk to Workers Include
High temperature & humidity
Direct sun exposure (with no shade)
Indoor exposure to sources of radiant heat like ovens & furnaces
Limited air movement
Low fluid consumption
Heavy personal protective clothing & equipment
Poor physical condition or health problems
Previous heat-related illness
Lack of recent exposure to hot working conditions
Advanced age (65+)
Resources for Heat Safety
The “heat index” provides a measure for estimating worker risk and takes into account both air temperature and humidity. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends employers track the worksite heat index daily and communicate it and the required precautions to workers (7).
Addressing heat stress and promoting heat safety in the workplace can increase productivity and help your company's bottom line while protecting the health and safety of your workers. Adopting policies and practices to proactively protect employees from the dangers of heat stress will enhance the culture of health and safety in the workplace and boost company morale. The list of resources below will help you get started:
NIOSH Revises Guidance on Heat and Hot Environments
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, passed by Congress in 1970, tasked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with the responsibility of recommending occupational safety and health standards, including exposure levels to hazards in the workplace. In February, NIOSH updated the Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments. This document, last revised in 1986, includes updated information on heat-related illnesses, risk factors affecting heat-related illnesses, psychological responses to heat, effects of clothing on heat exchange, and recommendations for control and prevention.
Prototype Welding System Shows Promise in Reducing Worker’s Exposures to Workplace Hazards
Dr. Nathan Fethke of the University of Iowa’s Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence and colleague Dr. Tom Peters partnered with a construction apprenticeship program to evaluate innovative equipment used by ironworkers in the construction industry. The use of this equipment improved back postures of workers and reduced their exposure to hazardous welding fumes when compared to use of conventional equipment. To read more about this exciting project click here.
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The Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence (HWCE) is one of four Total Worker Health® Centers of Excellence funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Our mission is to improve the health of workers in Iowa and nationally through integrated health promotion and health protection research, collaboration, and dissemination of successful interventions.