Using data reported to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that of all injuries and fatalities, about 3% were exertion related. Of that 3%, a staggering 89% were related to heat stress.
This study shows that heat is a significant danger for laborers in industries like construction, excavation, farming, and assembly line workers.
OSHA’s Safety Pays Individual Injury Estimator indicates that a single incidence of overheating related to extreme weather conditions can cost an employer around $79,081. This includes both direct (including workers’ compensation, medical treatment and hospitalization) and indirect (including missed workdays and decrease in productivity) costs.
Less severe – but still dangerous – types of heat-related illnesses are heat rash, heat cramps and heat syncope. Rhabdomyolysis, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are more life-threatening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite these illnesses and fatalities being preventable, millions are affected each year. The Atlantic Council reports that extreme heat is associated with 8,500 excess deaths annually and estimates a nearly sevenfold increase to 59,000 by 2050. This can lead to global instability and cost the global economy $2.4 trillion every year by 2030, the International Labour Organization says.
This raises the question: What are we doing about it?
OSHA launched a heat safety campaign earlier this year focusing on the importance of water, rest, and shade. They also recommend employers:
- Encourage workers to drink water every 15 minutes.
- Take frequent rest breaks in the shade to cool down.
- Have an emergency plan ready to respond when a worker shows signs of heat-related illness.
- Train workers on the hazards of heat exposure, and how to prevent illness.
- Allow workers to build a tolerance for working in heat.
Another option to protect front-line workers is to define roles, responsibilities and processes – making sure that someone on the team has the primary responsibility of sharing weather updates and heat advisories.
Updates need to not only include warnings, but educate them on symptoms to look out for and address solutions – where the shaded areas are, reminders to hydrate and take breaks, what the break schedule is and to let team members know who to inform if they begin to feel ill.
Training is also vital. Most outdoor fatalities – up to 70 percent – occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time.
“The process of building tolerance to heat is called heat acclimatization,” said James Downey, an industry safety leader. “Lack of acclimatization represents a major risk factor for heat illness or even a fatality.”
"Lack of acclimatization represents a major risk factor for heat illness or even a fatality."
Occupational risk factors for heat illness include heavy physical activity, warm or hot environmental conditions, not hydrating properly and wearing clothing that holds in body heat. Front line workers should wear loose fitting, light colored clothing that reflects the sun away, get some cooling devices and take a look at your safety vest that have air movement and are a bit more breathable.”
Supervisors and safety professionals also need to make regular rounds on a jobsite, actively encouraging people to take breaks before they fall to heat exhaustion or illness.
Heat exhaustion is the heat system failing, and heatstroke happens after it fails. Symptoms of heat exhaustion or illness include:
- Heavy sweating
- Fast heart rate
- Dark-colored urine
- Muscle cramps
Take the following steps to cool down:
- Get out of the heat
- Ideally find air conditioning or shade
- Drink water slowly
- Remove tight clothing or extra layers
- Lie or sit back with wet towels over your big blood vessels in the neck or armpits
Heatstroke happens when the body’s heat control center fails, and the body’s temperature rises above 104F. As the body temperature climbs over 102 the skin stops sweating – beginning a vicious cycle.
Get immediate medical attention if the following occurs:
- Possible, seizures
While waiting for EMS, take immediate action to cool the overheated person:
- Get the person into shade or indoors.
- Remove excess clothing.
- Cool the person with whatever means available —with water, sponge with cool water, fan while misting with cool water or place ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person's head, neck, armpits and groin.