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Taking the stress out of heat

Even though resources are plentiful and the cost of prevention is minimal, every year, thousands of workers become sick from exposure to heat and some die. Heat related exposure includes not only heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, fainting and heat stroke, but also injuries from falls, equipment operation and accidents that occur when a worker has sweaty palms or fogged safety glasses or becomes dizzy, disoriented, or fatigued as a result of dehydration.

Studies show that dehydration levels of 2% of body weight or more impair visual motor tracking, short-term memory, attention and arithmetic efficiency. Moreover a 23% reduction in reaction time occurs at the 4% dehydration level. Such declines in cognitive performance can significantly increase the risk of work-related accidents.

The problem is not limited to those who work outside. Those who work around machinery and in confined spaces, such as mechanics, steamfitters, ship builders, plumbers, bakery workers, boiler room workers, drycleaners and so on can be at risk for heat stress. Fully encapsulated protective clothing also increases sweat rates, accelerating dehydration.

Training employees about heat stress, how it affects their health and safety, the warning signs and how it can be prevented is key prevention and there are many valuable resources through OSHA, CDC, NIOSH readily available. But employers need to understand the physical, emotional and psychological reasons it occurs for the training to be effective. Here are some key points:

The effects of heat-related illnesses can also result in long-term disabilities. In an unpublished decision, Steele v. Surry County, No. COA10-607 (N.C. Ct. App. 04/05/11, unpublished), the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that a heavy equipment operator was entitled to temporary total disability benefits. The operator, who suffered a seizure while working at the bottom of a landfill pit, continued to have seizures after being released from the hospital. The North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the operator showed his seizures were causally related to the heat-related illness, and he was entitled to temporary total disability benefits.

Employers who educate workers about the medical and behavioral risk factors as well as the symptoms of heat-related illness, and instill the importance of working safely by proper scheduling, providing adequate breaks, providing plenty of cool water, gradual indoctrination to adverse work conditions, preparing an emergency plan etc. will be most successful in preventing illness and injuries.

A helpful resource is OSHA’s new webpage designed to raise awareness among workers and employers about heat illnesses and how to prevent them. The web page has resources and training tools, many which target vulnerable workers with limited reading skills or limited English. OSHA is also partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on weather service alerts. NOAA’s Heat Watch page now includes worker safety precautions when extreme heat alerts are issued.