Protecting Workers from Heat Stress

The Heat Is On: Protecting Workers from Heat Stress

May 10, 2012
Keep your workers cool, healthy and productive even in the hottest work environments.

When the heat is on the 500-plus contractors and more than 5,000 employees working with the Walsh Austin Joint Venture at Los Angeles International Airport, they’re in good hands: Walsh Austin JV maintains a comprehensive heat stress program to ensure all workers stay cool, hydrated and safe.

These workers, who are completing a 1-million-square-foot addition to the airport’s Tom Bradley International Terminal, may be exposed to heat and the sun while on the job. By ensuring all contractors and employees are thoroughly trained and knowledgeable of heat stress symptoms, Walsh Austin JV gives workers the tools they need to keep their cool.

“Our employees know they have a say in safety, so when they feel conditions are too hot, they bring it up with supervision,” says Stephen Samuelson, project safety manager at Walsh Austin JV.

“Anytime anyone feels they need to take a break, they’re allowed to take no less than a 5-minute break while drinking water,” adds Michael Gloria, assistant safety manager. “We encourage employees to drink water on a regular basis to stay hydrated.”

Gloria and Samuelson explain that all workers are thoroughly trained in recognizing and addressing heat stress; contractors are provided with heat index charts; heavy, intense work is scheduled at cooler times of the day; e-mail alerts are sent out in advance of heat waves; all trucks are equipped with water jugs; the safety trailer is located near cold, filtered water and a washing area; workers are made aware of the importance of taking breaks in the shade and are trained in the symptoms of heat illness; and more.

One of the most important components of a heat stress program, according to Samuelson, simply is knowing your workers and their needs. If possible, employers should be aware of employees’ potential health conditions or medications that could impact their heat tolerance. And employers must do more than train workers in the symptoms of heat stress – they also need to have a plan in place to address the problem if a worker gets sick. Employees should know where and how to access cooling areas, how to begin basic first aid treatment of heat stress and when to call for medical help if the situation seems serious.

“A few of us even go as far as carrying around backpacks with cooling packs and headbands so in an emergency, we can cool people right away,” Gloria says. “Having a plan in place is very, very important.”

Heat Stress: Get the Facts

Walsh Austin JV continuously updates its heat stress program to keep all incoming contractors and employees informed and safe. For those companies that do not already have such a comprehensive program in place, Brenda L. Jacklitsch, M.S., a biologist/epidemiologist and heat stress subject matter expert at NIOSH, shares her expertise – and sheds some light on a few heat stress misconceptions in the process:

Heat doesn’t affect everyone equally – As Samuelson and Gloria pointed out, not all workers share the same susceptibility to heat stress. Jaclitsch adds that workers who are overweight, over age 65, on certain medications or with compromised physical fitness may face a higher risk of suffering heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Employers must maintain good communication with their workers and monitor them carefully for signs of heat stress.

Heat stress can strike workers in various jobs and industries – When you hear “heat stress,” you might think of construction workers doing heavy labor in the heat of the day or factory workers confined in non-air-conditioned warehouses, but in reality, many types of industries and work environments can put employees at risk of heat stress. For example, a police officer directing traffic outside on a hot day can be at risk of heat stress, especially if this isn’t typically part of his or her job duties. Workers wearing heavy uniforms or PPE also could become overheated.

The presence of sweat does not necessarily rule out the possibility of heat stroke – While workers suffering from heat stroke typically stop sweating, this is not necessarily true in all cases, Jacklitsch says. “With a lot of these workers, they’re more acclimated or used to doing this kind of work, so they suffer from exertional heat stroke. In this case, you will continue to sweat even though your body temperature has risen to the point where you’re experiencing symptoms of heat stroke.”

Air conditioning won’t ruin a worker’s acclimatization – Some employers worry that allowing workers to take breaks in air conditioning will ruin their acclimatization. Fortunately, this is a myth. “It’s perfectly OK for an acclimatized worker to take breaks in the air conditioning,” Jacklitsch says.

Heat waves are a threat even for acclimatized workers – When a heat wave or heat spike affects your area, even workers with experience working in heat are at risk because they haven’t been acclimatized to that higher temperature level. “Anytime a heat wave is announced, everyone needs to be more careful,” Jacklitsch warns.

What workers drink can affect their heat-stress susceptibility – While caffeine traditionally has been considered off limits for employees working in the heat, some studies suggest that moderate amounts of caffeine may be OK. Even so, workers probably should pass up that cup of hot joe before working in the heat. “Drinking or eating something hot can affect your body temperature at the time,” Jacklitsch says. “The best thing to drink is water. Employers should provide cool water that’s easily drinkable.” Samuelson adds, “Unfortunately, in this day and age, people love those energy drinks. We highly recommend staying away from them.”

Take a pass on the salt tablets – “The current view is that in the typical American diet, a lot of foods are processed and already have salt in them,” Jacklitsch says. “Most people, if they’re eating regularly and not on any special medications or special non-salt diets, should be OK with the amount of salt they have. Our recommendation is to allow workers to have lunch breaks and snacks throughout the day. That should be enough to keep their electrolytes up.”

Heat stress is not the only hot-weather safety concern – When working in the heat, employees may develop sweaty palms, which can create problems if they are hauling equipment or swinging tools. Hot equipment could burn unprotected workers. Employees who become dizzy from the heat can be at risk of falling or injuring themselves. Safety glasses can fog up in hot weather, and certain types of floors can become slippery from sweat.

“The main thing is having good communication between the workers and the safety personnel or supervisor at the time,” Jacklitsch concludes. “We recommend that if someone looks really sick, has multiple symptoms and isn’t recovering quickly, it’s best to get medical professionals involved as soon as possible.”

Heat Stress 101

Heat stroke, the most critical form of heat stress, can be fatal. Symptoms include confusion, seizures, loss of consciousness and either hot/dry skin or profuse sweating. If you suspect a worker might have heat stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. Move the employee to a cooler area, wet him or her with water and place cold, wet cloths or ice on the worker’s body or clothing. Someone should stay with the employee at all times until medical assistance arrives.

Heat exhaustion also is a serious heat illness. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, thirst, heavy sweating, weakness and elevated body temperature. Get the worker medical treatment as soon as possible. Have the worker drink cool water, if possible, and cool down with cold compresses to the head, neck and face.

Heat cramps and heat rash are other common heat illnesses. Workers who develop heat cramps should drink water and have a snack, avoid salt tablets and obtain medical assistance if cramps remain after 1 hour. If a worker develops heat rash (small red blisters or pimples), he or she should keep the area cool and dry and avoid using ointments or creams.

To protect workers from heat stress, employers should:

➤ Allow workers to gradually acclimate to the heat and ease new workers into hot work slowly.

➤ Provide workers with plenty of cool water that tastes good and is easily drinkable. Encourage workers to drink water before and during their shifts to stay hydrated (but not to exceed 12 quarts in a 24-hour period).

➤ Provide cool areas and shade for breaks.

➤ Track weather and heat conditions and adjust work accordingly, particularly in the event of a heat wave.

➤ Schedule heavy work for earlier or later in the day instead of the hottest midday hours.

➤ During hot weather, give workers more frequent breaks and/or assign additional workers to the job.

➤ Encourage workers to eat snacks or meals regularly to replenish their electrolytes.

➤ Train workers in recognizing heat stress symptoms, treatment and how/when to obtain medical assistance in the event of an emergency.

View the OSHA-NIOSH heat stress info sheet, available at, to learn more.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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