How Your Company Can Effectively Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses
Heat-related illnesses are a significant occupational risk for millions of workers in the US, particularly those operating in environments with extreme heat, whether outdoors or indoors. When your body is unable to regulate its internal temperature, the consequences can lead to a range of severe health effects, including loss of consciousness and permanent disability, and in the worst case it can even be fatal. Here we explore the causes of work-related heat stress, its impact on workers, and strategies companies can take to prevent and mitigate the risk.
The human body relies on sweating and increased blood flow to the skin to dissipate heat and maintain a healthy internal body temperature in warm environments, especially when physically active. If heat dissipation is insufficient, the internal body temperature rises, and workers may experience symptoms ranging from thirst to heat stroke, which is the most severe heat-related illness and requires immediate medical attention.
Hazardous heat exposure can occur in any season and industry; however, the most susceptible are those that work outdoors and in indoor environments where extreme heat conditions are common, like in mining exploration and factories. A range of environmental and personal factors can cause work-related heat stress. Things like air temperature, humidity, sunlight, air movement, and radiant heat from machinery and other sources are just a few of the environmental factors employers must consider when trying to protect workers.
Personal factors include heavy physical activity, lack of acclimatisation, and wearing heat-trapping protective clothing. Other factors include age, gender, and health status. For example, some workers are at higher risk of heat-related illness due to personal factors like pre existing medical conditions, lack of physical fitness, acclimatisation level, alcohol consumption, or use of certain medications.
Symptoms of heat-related illnesses can vary from mild and moderate symptoms to severe health events. Some examples of heat-related injuries include:
Dehydration: This occurs when the body loses more fluids than it takes in, leading to symptoms such as extreme thirst, irritability, confusion, fatigue, feeling dizzy and lightheaded.
Heat cramps: These are painful muscle spasms due to dehydration and loss of electrolytes from sweating.
Heat exhaustion: This occurs when the body’s core temperature rises above the normal range, leading to symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and nausea.
Heat stroke: This is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s internal temperature rises above 40°C / 104°F. Symptoms can include confusion, seizures, loss of consciousness, and organ damage.
Sunburn: Exposure to direct sunlight without proper protection can lead to painful and damaging sunburn. This can vary from mild to severe with some people requiring hospitalisation.
Protecting workers from heat-related illnesses isn’t a choice for companies; it’s a requirement. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) introduced a National Emphasis Program (NEP) on April 8, 2022, focused on heat-related hazards. This program aims to conduct proactive inspections for heat-related hazards in indoor and outdoor work environments.
The NEP outlines triggers for heat-related inspections, including hazardous heat conditions observed or reported during non-heat-related investigations and days the National Weather Service identifies as posing an extreme heat risk. During inspections, OSHA will review injury and heat-related illness logs, interview workers for heat illness symptoms, determine if the employer has a heat-related illness and injury prevention program, and document relevant environmental conditions.
Employers can implement various engineering, administrative, and personal protective measures to prevent and mitigate work-related heat stress. Things like ensuring their safety policies address heat-related hazards, monitoring the heat index and employee exposure to heat, and training employees on heat-related illness and emergency response.
Companies can implement various controls, including ventilation, cooling systems, insulation, rest schedules, training and education, and emergency response planning. For example, for outdoor workers, companies can provide shade, install fans or misters, provide cooling clothing, schedule work during cooler hours, and increase hydration breaks.
Companies that take proactive steps to manage heat stress can protect their employees and reduce the risk of heat stress-related injuries and illnesses. By implementing a combination of engineering and administrative controls, and personal protective measures, companies can create a safer and more productive work environment for their employees.
Let’s look at a few of the most powerful tools in the fight against heat-related injuries in the workplace.
Using acclimatisation periods for new employees is a powerful strategy for preventing heat-related illness. Heat acclimatisation occurs when your body physically adapts to a hot environment after repeated exposure. These adaptations include increased sweating efficiency, stabilisation of circulation, ability to perform work with lower core body temperature and heart rate, and increased skin blood flow.
Workers can be acclimated to hot environments by gradually increasing their exposure time over 7 to 14 days, based on workers’ previous experience and fitness level. Workers absent from the job can maintain their acclimatisation for several days but may need to reacclimate to the environment if they are absent for long periods.
It is important to note that workers will acclimatise relative to their initial level of physical fitness and total heat stress experienced. For example, new workers may require more time than experienced workers who have already been exposed.
Companies must consider the type of personal protective equipment (PPE) they provide when addressing heat exposure. Some forms of PPE can hold excess heat and moisture inside, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses by reducing the body’s ability to eliminate heat through sweating. In addition, the physical effort required to perform duties while carrying the extra weight of PPE can also lead to the worker getting hotter faster.
Employees should remove PPE during rest breaks and use active or passive cooling methods to reduce core body temperature. When heat stress levels exceed the recommended occupational exposure limit, companies should provide other forms of heat prevention, like wearable personal cooling systems or equipment. However, it’s essential to understand these systems have limitations within an occupational setting, such as being too heavy, requiring the worker to be tethered to a system, or not staying cool long enough to be practical.
Many states and companies have implemented effective heat stress prevention and mitigation programs. For example, the United Parcel Service (UPS) provides employees with cooling vests, hydration stations, and access to air-conditioned vehicles.
These programs prevent heat-related illnesses by implementing engineering controls, training, and encouraging workers to acclimatise gradually to hot environments. An effective heat stress prevention program includes several elements including:
Risk assessment: Employers should conduct a risk assessment to identify jobs and work locations that may pose a heat hazard. This assessment should include an evaluation of employees’ physical environment, workload, and personal risk factors. The assessment should also identify areas where heat stress most likely affects workers.
Engineering controls: Employers should use engineering controls to reduce heat stress hazards, such as air conditioning, insulation, and reflective roofing materials.
Administrative controls: Employers should use administrative controls to reduce heat stress hazards, such as modifying work schedules, increasing rest breaks, and providing access to cool water and shade.
Training: Employers should provide training to workers and supervisors on the signs and symptoms of heat stress, how to prevent it, and what to do if it occurs.
Monitor Conditions: Employers should monitor environmental conditions. The NIOSH/OSHA Heat App can be used to help calculate heat index and provide further guidance.
Respond to Symptoms: Employers should establish procedures for monitoring and responding to symptoms of heat stress, including providing access to water, shade, and first aid.
Workplace injuries cost companies billions of dollars each year, and studies estimate the cost of heat stress in the workplace will reach $2.5 trillion by 2030. Heat stress is a real threat to the health and safety of workers and has continued to gain the attention of businesses and regulators.
Thankfully, most companies can avoid these expenses by implementing the best practices discussed in this article, like acclimatisation, PPE, and a heat-stress program. However, sometimes implementing best practices like these isn’t enough, and companies serious about protecting workers and wanting to avoid the costs associated with heat stress must look for additional tools. New technology has helped to fill that gap and is assisting countless companies to effectively address the threat of heat.
Bodytrak is a non-invasive, in-ear monitoring solution that accurately measures core body temperature, heart rate, and heart rate variability in one comfortable wearable device. It provides individualised data-driven insights into how the body responds to extreme environments and work-related stressors so that leaders and medical staff can intervene when necessary to prevent an injury or death.
Early intervention is vital to prevent heat-related incidents. Continuous policy improvements are also essential, and the Bodytrak solution provides automated and customizable reports to enable organisations to improve health and safety policies, including the implementation of engineering and administrative control changes to reduce risk level overall. In addition, the insights obtained can lead to cost reductions through injury prevention, the avoidance of regulatory fines, reduced commercial insurance, and enhanced operational efficiency of workers.
Schedule a demo today to learn more about how Bodytrak can help you create a happier, healthier, and safer workplace for those exposed to heat.