Developing a safe and comfortable work environment is an important commitment every day of the year, but especially when new risks arrive during the summer months, such as extreme heat. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 1,300 deaths per year in the United States are due to extreme heat.
Throughout the country, thousands of employees who work outdoors, from photographers to lifeguards, face potential dangers from overexposure to heat. Those who primarily work indoors, such as foodservice workers, are also at risk. Whether from the sun or a hot oven, heat exposure contributes to employee injuries or illnesses across a range of industries.
Before the temperature starts to rise, evaluate your workplace safety program, implement prevention measures for workers exposed to extreme heat conditions and start training employees on the safety hazards of heat-related injuries.
Developing a safe work environment begins with a plan. This includes identifying and assessing potential hazards within your workplace. Be aware of job-related risk factors during the summer months, including high temperatures and humidity, direct exposure to sunlight, lack of water and long work hours.
Create a Comfortable Workplace
Taking steps to mitigate safety risks in your workplace is essential in the summer. This can include:
Environment – If your employees primarily work indoors, make sure your HVAC or cooling system is clean, efficient and in working order. Employees who work outdoors need access to shaded areas in which to cool down. Consider installing portable fans or provide an air-conditioned area where they can take periodic breaks.
Hydration Stations – Hydration is an essential part of mitigating heat-related illnesses. Install water coolers or provide water bottles in break rooms or other easily accessible areas to encourage employees to stay hydrated. This is especially important for people who primarily work outdoors. Encourage workers to drink a liter of water over one hour, which is about one cup every 15 minutes.
Regular Breaks – Consider altering shift schedules where possible so employees can avoid exposure to heat during the mid- to late-afternoon peak. For instance, schedule physically demanding work in the mornings or evenings and less physical work in the afternoons.
Even with these precautions, heat-related injuries can still occur, which is why it is essential to train and educate workers and supervisors about potential heat-related illnesses and how to address them properly. While brief exposure to heat can cause serious burns, prolonged exposure may result in more dangerous or life-threatening conditions. Three common heat-related illnesses include:
Heat cramps, the mildest form of heat-related illnesses, are usually caused by the loss of body salts and fluids during sweating. To keep heat cramps from turning into a more serious condition, workers should replace fluid loss by drinking water or electrolyte-containing beverages and moving to a cool area.
Heat exhaustion occurs after long periods of heat exposure due to a loss of fluids and salts. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst and heavy sweating. Workers who experience heat exhaustion should be moved to a cool area and encouraged to take frequent sips of cool water. Cold compressions to the head, neck and face can also help reduce body temperature.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related health problem. It shocks the body’s cooling system and causes it to shut down. The most common type of heat stroke is sunstroke, which is caused by the sun shining directly on the head and neck for prolonged periods of time. If heat stroke isn’t treated immediately, it can be fatal. The signs of heat stroke are high body temperature, seizures, confusion and loss of consciousness. Train employees to call 9-1-1 immediately if an employee is experiencing a heat stroke.
With summer right around the corner, take the time to revisit your safety plan and make sure your employees are prepared to stay safe when the temperatures start to soar.
Robert Folster is the regional loss control program manager for EMPLOYERS (www.employers.com), a small business insurance specialist, which offers workers’ compensation insurance and services through Employers Insurance Company of Nevada, Employers Compensation Insurance Company, Employers Preferred Insurance Company, and Employers Assurance Company.