Spring has arrived, which means that summer is just around the corner and the temperatures are about to start rising—especially in the southern region of the country. While summertime weather can be great for lying on the beach, floating a river, or boating on a lake, the heat can be dangerous for workers.
According to OSHA, 4,120 workers suffered a heat-related illness or injury in a single year. Another 31 workers died from heat-related conditions during the same period. Many—if not most—of those injuries and deaths could have been prevented by taking proper precautions and practicing safe work habits.
Who Is at Risk for Heat-Related Illnesses & Injuries?
Workers who spend a great deal of time working outdoors are the most susceptible to heat-related injuries and illnesses. Being exposed to extreme temperatures is dangerous enough on its own, but many outdoor workers are engaged in physically challenging tasks (construction workers, agricultural workers, industrial workers, etc.). The combination of the outside temperature and rigorous manual labor can lead to body temperatures high enough that they cannot be cooled to a safe level simply through sweating.
Types of Heat-Related Illnesses & Injuries
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stresses that working in hot environments can cause something known as heat stress—a general term for a variety of ailments triggered by prolonged exposure to high temperatures.
The agency notes that those who are at risk of heat stress include:
- Those who are 65 years of age or more
- Overweight workers
- Workers with heart disease or high blood pressures
- Workers who take certain medications
While heat can cause or contribute to a wide variety of injuries and illnesses, there are three general types that are very common.
Extreme heat can cause muscle cramps or spasms. Heat cramps can be extremely painful and severe in some cases, but they are generally the mildest form of heat injury.
When the body loses too much water and sweat, its internal temperatures begin to rise to levels that can make workers sick. Once body temperatures get above 100 degrees, symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, fatigue, and headaches. If workers begin feeling any of these symptoms, they should rest and cool their bodies off immediately to avoid exacerbating the illness.
This is the most dangerous type of heat-related illness. Its symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion, but they are much more severe. In the most serious instances, heat stroke can lead to seizures or comas.
Other Ways the Heat Makes Work Dangerous
Illness isn’t the only risk of working while it’s hot. High temperatures place all workers in danger by making routine aspects of their job riskier. The heat can cause glasses to fog up, make palms sweaty, and even make a person feel dizzy briefly—things that could trigger a serious work accident at any moment.
Working In the Heat: Safety Tips You Can Follow
There are many things that can be done to prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries. First and foremost, workers should listen to their bodies and watch for signs of fatigue that could develop into a more serious illness if ignored. At the first sign of heat-related symptoms, workers should immediately seek cooler shelter to lower their body temperatures.
To most effectively prevent heat-related work injuries, employers should allow and encourage workers to:
- Take frequent breaks to cool off;
- Drink lots of water and fluids to replenish lost electrolytes;
- Work shorter shifts;
- Recognize the signs of heat stress; and
- Act quickly to treat heat-related injuries at the first sign of any symptoms.
Employers should also set up a buddy system so workers can monitor one another for signs of heat stress, and they should encourage workers to wear clothing that is appropriate for working in the heat. While workers should not forgo protective gear, they can avoid overheating by wearing light-colored, breathable, and loose-fitting clothing.
How Hot Is Too Hot?
This is a question often associated with heat-related work injuries. How hot is too hot?
The answer will also vary depending on a number of factors:
- The amount of physical activity a worker is expected to perform
- The temperature of the air in the indoor or outdoor work environment
- Humidity levels in the work environment
- The amount of sunlight a worker will be exposed to
- Any sources of heat, such as asphalt and even heavy machinery
- Whether there is any wind or other airflow
- The type of protective gear the worker must wear
Workers will have varying abilities to deal with hot temperatures while performing their job duties. Their personal ability to work in the heat will depend on age and overall health as well as acclimatization: whether they've worked in the heat before, and how recently. People who are not used to warm temperatures are most susceptible to heat-related work injuries.
The CDC recommends that employers use an acclimatization plan to gradually expose workers to hot environments, usually over a period of 7 to 14 days:
- New workers should spend no more than 20% of their time in a hot environment on their first day. On the second day, this can be increased by no more than 20%. Each following day, exposure should increase by no more than 20%.
- Experienced workers may spend up to 50% of their time in a hot environment on their first day, 60% on their second day, 80% on their third day, and 100% on their fourth day.
With gradual and regular exposure to warm temperatures, the body will adjust and adapt. Sweating will become more efficient, and blood circulation will stabilize.
Can Employers Make You Work in the Heat?
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment and do everything within reason to prevent heat-related injuries. For example, workers who have not built up a heat tolerance are much more likely to suffer a heat-related injury or illness. Employers should be mindful of this and ease new or temporary workers into extreme heat conditions. They can also make sure that workers are provided with plenty of fluids and shade and are given frequent breaks to avoid overheating their bodies.
If temperatures are too high for workers to safely do their job, employers are obligated by the law to stop work and protect their safety. If one fails to do this and an injury occurs as a result, affected workers or their families should contact a work injury lawyer as soon as possible.
If you have suffered a heat-related illness or injury, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact the work injury attorneys at Arnold & Itkin today to learn about your legal options.