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How to Combat Indoor Heat Exposure

May 14, 2020
Do you think you’re safe from worrying about heat exposure because your workers are indoors? Think again.

Heat is a condition that affects all workplaces, whether indoors or out.

Although much focus is placed on workers toiling outdoors in the summer sun (construction, landscaping, agriculture, etc.), it is important to note those working indoors (factories, warehouses, etc.) are susceptible to heat stress as well.

In 2015, environmental heat exposure contributed to 37 work-related deaths and 2,830 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Heat generating machinery can cause indoor temperatures to far exceed those in the outdoor environment. Additionally, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), while helpful and necessary, can be an added source of warmth.

Known to be a trailblazer in protecting employees, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health often leads the country in setting safety standards and regulations.

Indoor heat has become enough of a concern that Cal/OSHA has developed an indoor heat illness prevention standard that requires employers to maintain the temperature and heat index below 82 degrees where workers work in high radiant heat work areas or must wear clothing that restricts heat removal.

While certain environmental conditions may be unavoidable in the workplace, there are controls you can put into place to help workers acclimate and stay safe in heat-related conditions.

The Impact of Heat on Workers

While most people think of heat stroke and heat exhaustion as being something that affects athletes and outdoor laborers, many workers are exposed to high levels of heat inside the workplace. Factory, warehouse and industrial employees, along with other indoor workers, are equally susceptible to the ravages of high temperatures.

Various environmental factors have driven temperatures to record daily highs in recent years. In some cases, these factors further exacerbate already hot indoor conditions, creating an unsafe work environment with reduced productivity. In a confined space, especially with heat-generating equipment or appliances, employees can quickly become exhausted and overheated. Workers wearing protective gear are at an even higher risk for heat-related issues given that protective gear can trap heat next to the body.

Heat exposure can lead to costly mistakes, time lost due to illness and even death in extreme heat illness situation. An increase in body temperature of two degrees Fahrenheit can affect mental functioning. A five-degree Fahrenheit increase can result in serious illness or death. During hot weather, heat illness may be an underlying cause of other types of injuries, such as heart attacks, falls and equipment accidents. Not only can high temperature environments increase the likelihood of injury or illness, it can also contribute to a slower work pace. Studies show that worker productivity will decrease by more than 1% for every two degrees when temperatures rise over 77°F. At temperatures of 92°F or higher, there is a 16.6% decrease in productivity. Additionally, increased body temperature and discomfort can lead to irritability and frustration that could lead to more careless and/or aggressive behavior. This puts the worker and the work environment at risk when one is not properly prepared for the heat.

Ensuring Worker Safety

Government organizations, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), implement guidelines and regulations to ensure heat-related prevention practices are in place to protect these workers. Key requirements of the Cal/OSHA draft standard regarding indoor heat includes:

  • Establishing, implementing, and maintaining a heat illness prevention plan;
  • Implementing emergency response procedures for signs and symptoms of heat illness and contacting emergency medical services, if necessary;
  • Providing water and access to cool-down areas maintained below 82 ° F;
  • Taking temperature or heat index measurements during work shifts and maintaining records of measurements to assess the effectiveness of the employer’s control measures;
  • Closely monitoring new or newly assigned employees while they acclimate to hot conditions;
  • Training workers and supervisors in the risks and signs of heat illness; and
  • Using administrative controls or providing heat-protective equipment if engineering controls cannot reduce the temperature and heat index below the standard’s limits.

OSHA emphasizes that using the heat index can help to determine the risk of heat-related illness, allowing supervisors to outline what actions are needed to prevent a worker’s core body temperature (CBT) from rising excessively. A worker’s CBT should not exceed 100.4° F, and a CBT of 102.2° F should lead to termination of exposure. When a CBT exceeds these levels, the rate of impaired judgement and errors increases, as does the risk of illness from heat stress.

Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk 

Since there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it is crucial to evaluate your particular environment to customize your safety plan. All companies should have an injury and illness prevention program (IIPP) to help identify hazards in the workplace and protect all employees even if your state does not require you to have one on file. As a basic written workplace safety program, an effective IIPP can improve the safety and health in every workplace. Cal/OSHA serves as a great resource for guidance protecting workers as outlined in an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) content and structure. Cal/OSHA’s sample model outlines key IIPP elements such as responsibility, compliance, hazard correction, training, instruction and recordkeeping among other key things.

Although not required, 34 states in the United States have established laws or regulations designed to require or encourage IIPPs. Fifteen states have mandatory regulations for this documentation. Implementing an IIPP that addresses a wide variety of risks, including extreme heat, can help assist the team decrease workplace injuries. Additionally, it fosters a workplace culture that lends itself to higher productivity, reduced turnover, reduced costs and greater employee satisfaction.

Actionable Steps for Mitigating Indoor Heat Risks  

Acclimating workers is a necessary process even if it seems counterintuitive to generating productivity (e.g., a reduced work shift during excessive heat). Acclimating workers is not just an issue for outdoor environments. Heat has just as much of an effect, if not more, on indoor workers. An effective heat acclimatization program gradually increases an unacclimated worker’s exposure to heat over a 7- to 14-day period. If workers are wearing person l protective equipment (PPE), be sure to take that into account. Consider providing cooling PPE that reduces or combats heat stress. This could include items such as fire proximity suits, water-cooled garments or neck bands, air-cooled garments and light-colored clothing.

Engineering controls are strategies designed to protect workers by removing hazardous conditions or placing a barrier between the worker and the hazard. Engineering controls that help reduce heat stress include everything from large scale efforts such as installing reflective shields to block radiant heat, to easily implementable tools like providing cooling fans or access to shade.

Evaporative coolers, which come in a variety of sizes, utilize ambient air flow (making them conducive to open doors) and water to actually cool the air they circulate without emitting mist or spray. Smaller models are easily moved and can spot cool workers throughout facilities. They can be especially helpful near particularly hot areas (e.g., molding machinery or coating ovens). Larger portable evaporative coolers – which are mobile but tend to be left in one place – are typically designed to cool people in spaces exceeding 5,000 square feet, like those on a manufacturing assembly line.

Training is key. Be sure workers are informed by reviewing the heat illness signs and symptoms. Consider hosting classes for workers or simply reviewing and hanging up posters with simple reminders. Additionally, ensure supervisors know and watch for signs of heat stress and allow workers to interrupt their work if they are extremely uncomfortable. Supervisors should also ensure work schedules allow appropriate rest periods and liquids are available.

Heat stress injuries are likely to be undercounted because heat is not always recognized as a cause of heat-induced injuries or deaths. Many of heat symptoms – such as rash, sweating, headache, and fatigue – are non-specific and can overlap with other, more common diagnoses. Indeed, one recent study of OSHA heat enforcement actions in 2012 and 2013 found that in five of the 23 cases (21.7%) in which there was a fatality, medical examiners attributed the cause to a cardiac event without considering whether heat triggered or contributed to the event. Taking proactive action to prevent heat stress will:

  • Protect health as heat illness is preventable and treatable before it becomes life-threatening.
  • Improve safety because ay heat stress can impair functioning.
  • Increase productivity given that people work slower and less efficiently when they are suffering from heat stress.

From IIPP creation to taking action, you effectively can combat workplace heat.  

About the Author

Terry DeRise

Terry DeRise is the manufacturing director for Portacool LLC (www.portacool.com), where he oversees all portable evaporative cooler manufacturing. With 29 years of experience, he leads a team of 130 at Portacool’s East Texas manufacturing facility where he is a believer in proactive planning to reduce workplace risks for all employees.

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