Heat Exposure: a Deadly Hazard for Workers – How to Stay Safe

According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 3,100 American workers suffered from heat-related illness requiring at least one day away from work to recover in 2013. In the same year, 34 workers died from exposure to extreme temperatures. The total climbs to 126 when you add that to the number of fatalities in the two years prior. Considering the thousands of illnesses and numerous deaths each year, it’s clear that the health effects of working in hot weather can pose serious trouble for companies and workers.

The problem is also widespread, impacting many different industries. During a press conference last month on heat stress awareness, OSHA’s Dr. David Michaels explained the wide-reaching effects of heat illness.

“Every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill due to working in the heat,” Michaels said. “About one-third of heat-related worker deaths occur in the construction industry, but outdoor workers in every field — including agriculture, landscaping, transportation, and oil and gas operations — are susceptible to the dangers of heat.”

Dr. Michaels provided the recent example of Avery Haas, a 41-year-old Illinois worker who died last year after working four hours re-roofing an apartment building in temperatures that reached 90 degrees. Haas’ employer had not had an adequate heat illness prevention program in place.

The good news is that heat illnesses and deaths are preventable. Employers are responsible for keeping their workers safe — including employees who do their jobs in extreme temperatures — so it is essential to be prepared in order to prevent and address heat-related illness. OSHA recommends keeping the following top-of-mind to stay safe in the heat.

Tips for preventing heat illness

  • Remember three simple words: water, rest, shade. Drink water every 15 minutes, even when you’re not thirsty, and take breaks whenever possible to rest in the shade and cool down.
  • Employers should have a plan in place to get outdoor workers used to the heat gradually. Employees who are new to the heat or who are returning to it after more than a week away should be given schedules that ease them into work. According to a 2014 OSHA agency analysis of 13 cases from 2012-2013 in which OSHA issued citations for heat-related fatalities, nine of the worker deaths occurred within the first three days on the job.
  • Learn the signs of heat illness. According to Dr. Michaels, the two most serious illnesses are heat exhaustion and heat stroke, with heat stroke posing the greatest danger. Symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, fainting, seizures, very high body temperature, profuse sweating, and hot, dry skin. It requires immediate medical attention. Heat exhaustion includes headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst, and heavy sweating, and can turn into heat stroke quickly if symptoms are not addressed immediately. In addition to monitoring your own health while in the heat, be sure to keep an eye on fellow workers to check for signs of illness.
  • Get OSHA’s newly updated Heat Safety Tool app, which lets you know instantly if you’re in a high-risk zone due to heat and humidity, and reminds you about protective measures to take to stay safe. The app is available for free in English and Spanish for iPhone and Android. 

To make sure you are fully prepared to prevent and address heat (and cold) related illness on the job, consider registering for MSDSonline’s course “Working in Extreme Temperatures.” The course provides training in identifying and avoiding hazards related to extreme temperature exposure, including: recognizing symptoms of heat and cold-related illnesses, factors that affect the body’s ability to withstand temperature extremes, steps to reduce the risk of illness or injury, first-aid measures for heat and cold-related illnesses, and precautions regarding to use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in extreme temperature environments.

Contact an MSDSonline Representative at 1.888.362.2007 to register for these courses or to learn more about our cloud-based Workplace Training solution, which makes it easy to assign relevant course topics to employees throughout your organization, track their success, generate course-completion certificates, and serve as evidence of your training efforts.

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