As we head into the summer months, the weather and working conditions that prompted the state of California to pass a heat illness-related standard are upon us once again.
Interestingly, in 2006 — the year the California standard was adopted — Cal/OSHA's Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that supervisors had not received any training on heat illness in 63 percent of heat-related fatalities. Heat illness is a medical condition that results from the body's inability to cope with heat and cool itself and includes heat cramps, heat exhaustion, fainting and heat stroke.
“If knowledge was enough to prevent it, we'd all be safe all the time. You have to use good judgment,” said Steve Hanson, a speaker at the Safety Forum of the Inland Empire meeting.
The California Standards Board adopted emergency heat regulations in August 2005, prompted by a significant increase in the number of possible heat-related incidents reported to Cal-OSHA that summer. That year, a Cal-OSHA investigation revealed that heat illness was directly responsible for 13 work-related deaths in 2005, as well as in a high percentage of other incidences such as accidents.
Since no other state or federal regulations were in place, Cal/OSHA drafted the first Heat Illness Prevention standard in collaboration with the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, worker and employer communities, Cal/OSHA, the Standards Board and other interested parties. The permanent heat illness prevention standard, Title 8, Chapter 4, § 3395, Heat Illness Prevention, applies to all outdoor places of employment and focuses on the provision of shade, water, acclimatization and training.
Under California's heat illness regulation, employers are required to take four basic steps to prevent heat illness at all outdoor worksites: develop and implement written procedures on heat illness prevention; provide heat illness training to all employees; make readily available and encourage each employee to drink four, 8-ounce cups of fresh water per hour; and provide immediate access to shade or any cool area out of the sun for recovery periods for at least 5 minutes at a time.
“Your company should be able to provide OSHA with your standard operating guidelines and procedures, as well as the date of your employee training, at their request,” said Hanson.
A good way to prevent heat illness at work is to educate all employees on the environmental and personal risk factors for heat illness. Employees should also know the importance of frequent consumption of small quantities of water as well as the common signs and symptoms of heat illness.
Hanson warns that “the more frequently you are exposed to heat stress and the more severe it is, the most susceptible you are to it again.”
Gayleen Grigoreas, the Southern California branch manager for the Safety Center, stated that it's important for supervisors specifically to be trained on heat illness because they need to be able to identify when someone is in distress. Supervisors also need to know what preventative measures to take if an employee is showing symptoms of heat-related illness. The Safety Center was founded in 1934 to reduce injuries and save lives by providing safety education and training.
According to Hanson, it important that supervisors and managers know the basics of first aid. Employees should first be taken out of the sun and then hydrated.
“It's also a lead by example thing and they need to know what's going on so that they can protect their employees,” Grigoreas said. Grigoreas organized the first safety forum in July 2007 because there was nothing available to the safety professionals out in the Inland Empire.
For example, supervisors need to know that shade is defined by Cal/OSHA as the blockage of direct sunlight and every employee should be provided no less than 5 minutes of preventative recovery time.
Also according to Cal/OSHA, employers should be able to provide one quart of water or electrolyte-replacement drinks per employee, per hour for the entirety of their shift. It also is important to educate employees about the necessity of staying hydrated. In 2006, 96 percent of heat-related deaths were from dehydration despite having water available on the work site. Some companies will go as far as to hire an employee whose full time job in the summer months is to constantly refill water, cups and ice on the job site.
Cal/OSHA defines personal risk factors for heat illness as a person's age, degree of acclimatization, health, water consumption, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption and use of prescription medications that affect the body's water retention.
“You have to watch for the guy that went out the night before and is dehydrated from drinking alcohol,” Hanson said.
Effect on Production
The most frequent illness among workers is heat exhaustion due to dehydration.
Most employees come to work already at least 3 percent dehydrated and can lose up to 3 gallons of water a day, or 2 percent of their body weight. Their cognitive performance is directly impacted; dehydration increases the amount of carelessness and accidents.
According to Cal/OSHA, environmental risk factors for heat illness are air temperature, relative humidity, radiant heat from the sun and other sources, conductive heat sources such as the ground, air movement, workload severity and duration, protective clothing and personal protective equipment worn by employees.
“Just because workers have built a tolerance and become acclimated to the heat conditions they are working in, doesn't mean that they aren't vulnerable to heat stroke,” Hanson said.
Elizabeth Wilson is a freelance writer who resides in Sacramento, Calif. Her work has been published in The Natomas Journal, American Fruit Grower magazine, Western Fruit Grower magazine and Occupational Hazards and Responder Safety magazines.