In college, I worked as a landscaper for a work-study program and I clearly remember the day my employer bought a tent for us to rest in on breaks and during lunch. I'm not even sure how much they paid for it, but to me it was worth a million dollars to be able to stop the mower, walk over to the tent, get some water from the cooler, and sit in the shade for a few minutes. Other people on the job with me all said the same thing, that the tent made us feel valued and important. We could sense that the employer wanted us to have reasonable comforts in the heat of the day, and that made us respect them more.
Summer Hazards for Outdoor Workers
In the heat of summer, when temperatures are already high in the morning and last all day long, the chances of someone having a heat-related injury dramatically increase, especially in industries that require working outdoors and in the sun for extended periods.
Some of the factors that add to the risk of working during the hotter months include:
- Heavy lifting
- Working near hot machinery
- Wearing a lot of personal protective equipment (PPE)
Gloves that are designed to protect workers' hands from injury can also add also hold in quite a bit of heat. If you're already hot from the sun and the air temperature around you, that extra heat on your hands can feel like a lot.
The Heat Index
The U.S. Department of Labor doesn't have a specific standard for compliance that specifically covers working in the heat, but certainly employers have a duty to provide a safe environment and to protect workers from heat exhaustion on the job.
Using the OSHA-recommended heat index chart helps employers determine when precautions are necessary to prevent heat-related illness and injury.
Preventing Heat Exhaustion
There are a few basic steps you can take to help workers avoid heath exhaustion.
- Remind your employees to watch out for each other, especially during the hottest parts of the day. Using your toolbox talks to promote a buddy system mentality and team spirit can go a long way to making sure that everyone goes home safe and well at the end of the day.
- Train workers to recognize the signs of someone overheating, including:
- Slurred speech
- Muscle cramps
- Redness or rashes on the skin
- Post signs on the jobsite to keep the heat risk at the forefront of every worker's mind (to learn more about this, see In Sight, In Mind: Reinforcing Safety Policies and Procedures).
- Get employees acclimated to the warmer weather with gradual exposure, especially for new employees. A recent OSHA investigation found that in almost half the cases of heat exhaustion involved a worker on their first day of work. And in 80 percent of the cases, the worker had only been on the job four days or fewer.
- Take extra precautions with employees returning to a job after illness, and anyone who has a medical condition or takes medications that can increase their sensitivity to the heat or make them more susceptible to dehydration.
- Provide the basics for cooling off during the day: rest, shade, and water.
- Have an emergency management plan in place for how to help a worker suffering from signs of heat exhaustion and heat-related stress. Do this before hot weather arrives – summer days can get really hot, really fast, and you don't want to be caught off-guard.