As if 2020 couldn’t get any more stressful, experts predict it will be the hottest year on record for atmospheric temperatures. The heat comes at a time when managing productivity and safety to maximize revenue for struggling industries is paramount. Heat is an added factor that must be considered as businesses navigate how to effectively recover after COVID. Employers must take proper precautions to mitigate their heat risk as they move forward with projects this summer.
Watch for signs
First, it’s important that outdoor workers who have been quarantined to stop the spread of COVID, or because they were ill or furloughed, to be screened before returning to work, as body temperature is a key indicator of the virus. After they start work, however, it is equally important to watch for signs and symptoms of other temperature-related setbacks – specifically injuries and illnesses caused by hot weather.
With shelter-in-place orders across much of the globe, many workers were likely spending their time away from work in temperature-controlled homes instead of working outside, as they typically would during the day. This is problematic because research shows that those accustomed to air-conditioning are less tolerant of the heat when they venture out into it.
This is a recipe for disaster that will likely lead to an increase in the number of heat-related deaths, injuries, and illnesses in 2020. This may bring these safety statistics to record levels – significantly adding to the numbers of 783 workers killed and 69,374 critically injured by heat on the job. The added impact from rising air temps and workers coming off COVID quarantine will likely boost heat stress incidents that were already on the rise, as the number of worker days spent in dangerous heat conditions is estimated to almost triple by 2050 for construction workers alone.
According to the CDC, the onset of heat stroke can increase a worker’s body temperature to 106 degrees Fahrenheit within just 10-15 minutes. In fact, the U.S. military recently identified heat exposure as a significant, growing threat – with an increase of almost 60 percent in exertional heat stroke and heat exhaustion cases since 2008. High heat can also increase the risk of occupational injuries by as much as nine percent, as shown by a recent ISGlobal study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. The personal impacts of heat include increased mental demand, and reduced dexterity and endurance on the job. Long-term impacts of consistently working in the heat can include chronic kidney disease and organ damage.
Seventeen of the 18 hottest years on record have taken place since 2001, and an average of 2.2 million workers (in the ag and construction industries alone) work in extreme heat during summer’s peak. The National Weather Service reports that heat was by far the leading cause of weather fatalities over the past 30 years. Heat stress affects all workers. Workers may appear healthy and, once heat injuries are detected by the naked eye, it’s actually too late. Since most workers don’t want to raise any flags about their own health, they often wait too long to take a break – and at that point, typical on-site treatments such as rehydrating and escaping the sun aren’t enough. Often, by the time a worker takes him or herself out of the heat, the damage is done.
In addition to worker health and safety, heat causes company impacts such as higher insurance costs, lost productivity, and reputational and legal risks if workers are not accommodated to protect their health and wellness. Employers in the U.S. spend $220 billion annually on injury and illness related to excessive heat. Only three states – California, Minnesota, and Washington – currently have OSHA heat standards in place, and these aren’t even the hottest states in the U.S. With the majority of states lacking OSHA heat stress standards, workers are laboring in sub-optimal conditions, with little protection or training. This exposure results in more injuries and hospitalizations, fewer worker days, and increased Worker Compensation costs.
In fact, research shows that, for every 10 degree Fahrenheit increase in outdoor temperature, there is a 393% increase in hospitalizations for heat exposure, and one study calculated the healthcare costs of a single California heat event at $179 million. Moreover, these impacts are fully preventable, since the risk of injuries and illnesses can be easily monitored by measuring each individual’s physiological responses to the heat.
To combat the risk, and associated costs, companies now spend $67 billion annually in smart PPE and protective equipment. The latest heat safety products include technology that provides continuous, private monitoring of individual workers’ physiological responses. Before this type of smart PPE, companies simply looked at accidents after the fact, with little ability to predict elevated risk for individual workers.
Now, new technology enables safety managers to both predict and prevent near-misses. Devices are often smaller than a cell phone and easy to wear, with no discomfort to the user. Users can review an individual’s leading biometric data such as heart rate, core body temperature, and sweat loss. And dashboards for each worksite team keeps management informed, while maintaining individual worker privacy.
Unlike temperature guns (now used to admit workers back on the site after scanning for virus-related body temperatures) which create an immediate lack of privacy, continuous individualized monitoring through smart PPE is covert. If an indicator warrants intervention, management can simply speak with the worker, without alerting others to the concern. Rather than reviewing heat-related injuries and illnesses after the fact, continuous monitoring allows users to predict and prevent heat incidents – keeping workers safer and fit for duty, while increasing output and lowering health care expenses.
In the not-so-distant future, heat monitoring through smart PPE may eliminate the need for temperature guns, as a worker may be able to use a wearable device prior to clocking in, so that body heat caused by both viruses and air temperatures can be detected and distinguished before the work even begins. This would allow workers who might be coming down with an illness to stay home from work and avoid spreading the disease to the rest of the workforce.
Heat-related risks, and thus the costs, for both workers and their employers keep mounting. That’s the bad news. The good news is, through heat prevention methods like acclimatization and heat interventions such as breaks, hydration, shade/air-conditioning and ice baths, risks can be addressed and proactively managed. And, as innovation continues in the smart PPE industry, individualized monitoring can be even more effective in reducing heat-related injuries and illnesses by providing real-time alerts when workers are unsafe and need to take a break.
For the growing problem of heat injuries and deaths, there are growing solutions. The key is to stay vigilant in understanding the conditions under which workers are being asked to perform, and being proactive in managing their risk, and therefore yours.