Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it can’t feel complicated. That’s just the situation many safety professionals find themselves in – they realize they need to step up their heat safety program but aren’t sure where to start. The internet is full of outdated, incomplete, and even wrongheaded advice, and the news is full of dire predictions that the world is getting hotter and heat illness is getting more frequent. So what’s a concerned safety manager to do? The good news is that many scientists and safety experts have been thinking the same thoughts and getting down to the business of solving the problem.
That’s just what 30 heat safety experts did in 2021 as they gathered their knowledge and experience to put together a simple 8-step plan that was reviewed and accepted by the scientific organization, American Geophysical Union (AGU). The plan covers all the bases of heat safety with actionable solutions you can start implementing today. This advice couldn’t have come at a better time as this 100% preventable problem claims lives and causes severe injuries every day on the job and is predicted to cause hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of productivity losses by the year 2050.
Implementing these eight steps in your workplace may not bring those numbers down to zero, but you’ll be well on your way to keeping people safer and protecting your workers’ lives.
Hygiene is all about management, and in this case that means managing heat hazards through education, assessments, daily adjustments, and communication.
Educating your workers can take different forms including formal training classes, regular reminders, and posted warnings and guidelines. Teaching everyone on your jobsite how to prevent, recognize, and treat all forms of heat illness is an incredibly effective way to save lives and avoid injuries and deaths.
Assessments and adjustments too can happen on many levels including periodically assessing worker wellness to determine their individual heat risk, designating supervisors, or using the buddy system so everyone keeps an eye on everyone else’s well-being and heat exposure, adjusting the work-to-rest ratios for the day when temperatures rise, and continuing assessments and communication as often as hourly in especially hot conditions. The buddy system is particularly important as it’s an oft-repeated myth that workers can self-pace and self-monitor. Hot conditions impair one’s ability to make decisions and workers often fail to realize that they’re falling ill until it’s much too late!
Most people think of this as a no-brainer, but there’s more to it than you might think. Top of the list is that you can make it more likely workers will be well-hydrated by teaching them to hydrate the night before work, during their shift, and after work. Just as important is to provide cool hydrating beverages, including water and electrolyte-replacing drinks, in close proximity to every work area. Workers tend to neglect their hydration if drinks are warm and unpalatable or far away from their work area. Margaret Morrissey, the President of the National Heat Safety Coalition, stressed that access to bathrooms is also important as workers will often drink less through the day if they know they won’t have ready access to bathrooms.
According to OSHA, more than 70% of workplace deaths due to heat happen in a worker’s first week on the job, and nearly 50% happen on the very first day of employment. These tragedies often happen in facilities and jobsites that put new workers into hot conditions without preparing them properly. When workers are instead exposed to hot working conditions gradually, rather than all at once, their bodies actually change and adjust to handle the heat better. Bringing new workers, or workers who have been away from the job for an extended period for any reason, into hot conditions just an hour or two a day at first, and then slowly increasing the hours worked over a period of time actually acclimates their bodies to hot conditions. That means they may sweat more to release additional heat and their heart rates may become lower to help their body stay cooler. This simple matter of creative scheduling doesn’t take the place of the other seven steps, but it’s a powerful tool in your heat safety arsenal.
Remember that the weather report you hear on TV or the radio is only a rough indicator of conditions on the job. Temperatures can vary enormously on a jobsite or within a facility depending on factors like humidity, hot equipment, direct sunlight, airflow, and other conditions. The safest bet is to use a WBGT (Wet Bulb Globe Temperature) Monitor to check all work areas throughout the day. These handy devices will factor in air temperature, humidity, heat from the sun, and wind speed to give you a measurement of the true conditions your employees are experiencing. Getting this more accurate picture allows you to modify work to rest ratios and any other adjustments you need to make to keep everyone safe.
While there’s not yet a magic monitor that will reliably alert you to heat illness, the monitors that do exist may have a place in your program in conjunction with the other seven steps. Physiological monitors can show you that your heart rate is too high or that your surface skin temperature has spiked, both of which can be factored into monitoring yourself and others.
Body Cooling Stations
Long a staple on hot job sites, body cooling stations provide a way for workers to bring their body temperature down during breaks and mealtimes. Air-conditioned bathroom trailers, cooling tents, break areas, or even shaded areas with cooling misters and fans can help. Add in coolers full of ice water and towels, and you can provide significant relief to hot workers as they take a few minutes to lower their core temperature.
Body Cooling PPE
When working conditions are hot, waiting to cool off during a break may not be the best option. Give workers the ability to cool off any time of day with the latest innovations in body cooling gear. Technologies allow workers to simply wet cooling fabric with any temperature of water, wring it out, wave it or snap it in the air a few times, and in less than a minute the fabric cools down to as low as 30 degrees below average body temperature. These fabrics stay cool for up to two full hours and can be reactivated again and again throughout the workday. Options like skull caps for under hard hats, bandanas, neck gaiters, and towels offer relief for just about any need.
Other PPE options that may not actively cool the wearer but do at least release trapped heat include lightweight and breathable gloves and sleeves as well as single-sided protection like mesh-backed welder’s jackets or aluminized chaps that protect from sparks or radiant heat while allowing the back of the body to take advantage of air circulation.
Every worker is different, and everyone has a different heat tolerance threshold – some much lower than others. So despite your best plans, you may still have a worker who experiences a heat illness emergency. In the case of heat stroke, the most severe type of heat illness, the key to keeping a bad situation from becoming a tragedy is good emergency prep and teaching the two important heat stroke rules:
30 minutes to prevent long-term damage
An often missed, yet crucial fact is that you have only 30 minutes to avoid permanent cell damage or death for a victim of heat stroke. Proper heat stroke treatment should take the form of calling emergency services and immediate cold-water immersion in which you cool the victim’s body to at least 102° F (as determined by EMTs when they arrive) before transporting them anywhere, even into an ambulance, as damage can continue on the way to the hospital if the victim’s temperature is still above the damage threshold.
Ideally, every job site or facility should have a tub big enough to immerse a heat stroke victim in ice and water to bring their temperature down as efficiently as possible. If a tub isn’t possible, you can improvise by using a tarp. Place the victim in the middle of the tarp and lift the sides to make a kind of sling, adding cold water and ice to immerse the person as well as possible. In either case, be sure to check them frequently for signs of additional distress and never leave them alone as you wait for help to arrive.
None of these eight simple steps are particularly difficult to enact and many of them are either inexpensive or completely free. Given what’s at stake, it’s a good place to start evaluating your heat safety program to find the gaps and see where you can improve.