With a triple-digit heat wave rolling through the Golden State, Cal/OSHA issued a press release last week urging employers to observe the precautions specified in its heat illness prevention regulation. To ensure compliance Cal/OSHA will have teams of investigators inspecting outdoor employers for heat illness prevention requirements. For employees working outdoors, the hot sun with high temperatures can be life-threatening.

“We will continue to mount a substantial enforcement presence to ensure that workers are not suffering from heat illness,” said Len Welsh, chief of Cal/OSHA. “It is critically important for those who work in high heat, and particularly those who supervise them, to understand how rapidly the human body can be damaged if simple precautions like drinking large amounts of water, resting in shaded or cool areas, and responding rapidly to warning signs of heat illness, are not taken.”

Under the heat illness prevention regulation, employers are required to take four basic steps to prevent heat illness at all outdoor worksites. These include having and implementing comprehensive procedures on heat illness prevention, and providing heat illness training to all employees--especially those who are not proficient in the English language.

In addition, employers must provide their employees readily accessible, clean and cool drinking water and ample shade or cooling areas. The hotter the weather, the more employees should be encouraged to take periodic breaks in the shade and pace themselves. Workers must also be encouraged to drink one quart, or four 8-ounce cups of cool fresh water, every hour—and as much more than that as they want. Avoiding alcoholic beverages is recommended, even after work, since they can dangerously dehydrate the body for 24 hours or more after being ingested. Caffeine-containing drinks like coffee and some sodas should be avoided because they will cause dehydration even though you feel like you are quenching your thirst when you drink them. Sports drinks may be offered as long as they are not used as a substitute for water and they do not contain caffeine.

Employers must recognize early warning signs of heat illness and train their supervisors and workers on symptom recognition as well. Some early symptoms and signs of heat illness to watch for are headaches, muscle cramps, and fatigue. These symptoms should disappear rapidly if an employee rests and cools off. If they do not, it is time to summon emergency medical services. If an employee exhibits nausea or vomiting, excessive sweating or hot dry skin, mental confusion, seizures, fainting or loss of consciousness, call for emergency medical services immediately while you are getting him or her out of the sun if possible and to the coolest area you can find.

Some employees who have health problems or medical conditions can be especially vulnerable to heat. Diabetics need to know that they have this vulnerability, as do many people who are taking anti-inflammatory medications or medications for high blood pressure. These employees need to be extra vigilant for indications that they are reacting adversely to heat exposure.

Employers with workers near sources of heat or inside buildings with limited cooling capabilities must ensure that their Injury and Illness Prevention Programs are effective and deal squarely with the heat hazards in their workplaces. Cal/OSHA studies show effective reduction of heat illness depends on employers having well-thought-out written procedures, ready access to water and cooling areas, procedures to allow for acclimatization of new employees or those who have not had recent exposure to hot working conditions, vigilant weather monitoring, preparation and training for emergency response, and detailed employee and supervisor training.

Under Governor Schwarzenegger's leadership, California became the first state in the nation to develop a safety and health regulation addressing heat illness in 2005. Cal/OSHA issued permanent heat illness prevention regulations to protect outdoor workers in 2006.