OSHA and Others Tackling Heat Stress Around the World
With summer only a couple of months away in the US, Europe, Middle East and the UK there’s no doubt it is getting hotter each year, and so does the conversation about heat stress in the workplace. Today, businesses and regulators worldwide focus on two primary concerns: ensuring employee safety in scorching temperatures and introducing new health and safety regulations for high-heat environments.
Workers in industries like metal manufacturing, mining, paper mills, and construction face a heightened risk of heat stress. For example, in metal manufacturing plants, workers are often exposed to high temperatures from furnaces and other equipment that generate heat while also wearing heavy PPE which prohibits heat loss.
The risk of heat stress is exceptionally high for workers who work within a close proximity of the heat sources or in confined spaces with poor ventilation. This can lead to cardiovascular strain, dehydration, heat stroke, and even death, not to mention impaired coordination, cognition, and fatigue that all hinder productivity.
Climate change is causing record-breaking heat waves, wildfires, and droughts across the globe. Parts of the USA, Emirates and Gulf endure the highest summer temperatures. In Europe, almost a quarter of workers experience extreme heat, with the construction sector bearing the brunt.
The impact on workers and productivity is alarming. Studies project that by 2030, heat stress could lead to a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs, costing the global economy a staggering $2.4 trillion. In the US alone, an estimated $100 billion could be lost annually due to diminished worker capacity from heat stress.
As heat waves intensify, workers worldwide face a heightened risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries. Addressing this challenge is vital, and several countries have implemented mandatory policies to ensure employers provide heat-relieving measures.
Heat stress plagues workers across industries, from agriculture and construction to indoor settings like production plants and workshops. Extreme heat compromises productivity, exacerbates poverty, and jeopardises worker livelihoods, particularly for vulnerable groups. Enforcing evidence-based, mandatory workplace heat stress regulations can safeguard workers by establishing employer requirements and penalties for non-compliance.
Countries worldwide are developing and implementing rules to protect workers from excessive heat. For example, China mandates protective measures for outdoor and indoor workers, while Thailand relies on the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) index to gauge workplace heat stress.
In Gabon, Mozambique, Cameroon, and South Africa, employers must offer rest breaks, personal protective equipment (PPE), and medical monitoring. Costa Rica requires training, acclimatisation time, rehydrating drinks, and shaded rest areas; while Brazil enforces WBGT-based tolerance limits for worker heat exposure.
Governments are updating health and safety regulations in response to increasing heat stress risks. In 2021, Qatar and Saudi Arabia prohibited outdoor work during peak summer heat and set a maximum working temperature of 32.1°C / 89.78°F. However, progress varies, with only a few European countries having “too hot to work” limits and the EU pushing for enforceable maximum working temperatures.
As climate experts predict more unsafe heat conditions ahead, additional regulations are anticipated. Mandated maximum working temperatures should complement other measures to reduce heat-related incidents, fostering open dialogue between regulators and organisations to enhance risk understanding and incident reporting.
Regulators in the United States are taking notice as well. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is tackling extreme heat exposure hazards for workers with a new initiative aimed at better protection in hot environments. Heat illness, although entirely preventable, affects thousands of workers each year in the United States, with 43 fatalities and 2,410 serious injuries in 2019 alone.
On April 8, 2022, OSHA launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) addressing heat-related hazards in indoor and outdoor workspaces. The NEP’s goals are increased inspections and enforcement across targeted industries to eliminate heat hazards by sharing best practices, prioritising interventions, and conducting inspections in hot conditions.
This initiative covers general industry, construction, agriculture, and maritime work sites with potential heat-related hazards. The program includes proactive inspections and hazard identification during non-heat-related investigations or extreme heat risk days.
OSHA area directors will prioritise heat-related complaints, referrals, and employer-reported illnesses for investigation. Inspections will involve reviewing OSHA 300 Injury and Illness Logs and 301 Incident Reports and evaluating the employer’s heat illness and injury prevention program.
While there is no specific heat hazard standard, OSHA relies on the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to cite employers. To protect workers and maintain compliance, employers should take proactive steps on heat priority days, such as providing water, rest, shade, and training for workers.
In addition, employers should assess potential heat illness exposure, implement prevention plans, and train employees. Key steps include acclimatising new or returning workers, providing more frequent breaks, and monitoring for signs of heat illness.
Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) monitoring is a widely used method for gauging heat stress risk, accounting for factors such as temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover. While measuring the external environment can highlight the risk of heat stress, it doesn’t detect the physiological response of each individual to the conditions. Whilst it’s a step in the right direction, many workplaces have yet to adopt another vital tool for protecting workers from heat-related illness: physiological monitoring.
Physiological Monitoring is a method of evaluating an individual’s heat strain response to heat stress conditions, and can be carried out continuously, discreetly and in real-time. Evaluation can involve tracking heart rate and core body temperature to gauge the level of heat strain. Data collected from physiological monitoring can guide immediate responses to heat stress, identify high-risk workers, and verify the effectiveness of control measures.
Physiological monitoring can complement environmental measurements, such as WBGT, by assessing the impact of heat stress on workers. Oral, skin, and aural measurements can be taken at worksites, especially when WBGT exceeds occupational exposure limits established by organisations like the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienist (ACGIH) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
As climate change leads to more frequent and severe heat waves, physiological monitoring will become crucial for preventing heat-related illnesses. Monitoring physiological responses to heat exposure, such as heart rate, skin and core body temperature, and total body water loss from sweating, enables organisations to gauge the impact of heat stress on their workers. However, when monitoring physiology it’s important to consider the right solution that provides reliable results that enable actionable outcomes in all scenarios.
Environmental health and safety (EHS) teams should implement monitoring programs to protect workers in high-heat industries while maintaining confidentiality and privacy. Ensuring workers consistently wear monitoring devices throughout their shifts remains a challenge, but enhancing compliance rates can be achieved through proper fit and clear communication about the technology’s purpose.
Advanced technological methods and tools for physiological monitoring, such as core body temperature (CBT) and physiological strain index (PSI) measurements, offer a safer and more effective approach to mitigating heat-related illnesses and injuries. By harnessing these cutting-edge solutions, companies can significantly decrease heat-related incidents, ensuring the well-being of their workers and promoting a healthier work environment.
Adopting technology-driven physiological monitoring systems will significantly contribute to addressing heat stress challenges and safeguarding the workforce. However, finding the right solution for your needs is challenging.
As global temperatures continue to rise, addressing workplace heat stress is a pressing concern. Ensuring worker safety in high-heat industries requires a collaborative effort from employers, regulators, and employees, focusing on communication and innovative solutions.
Proactive measures, such as implementing mandatory regulations, adopting physiological monitoring programs, and utilising wearable technology like Bodytrak, can help protect worker health and productivity, creating safer work environments. Bodytrak is an innovative, non-invasive in-ear device that offers continuous, discreet real-time monitoring and incident prevention by accurately measuring core body temperature, heart rate, physiological strain index, fatigue levels, noise exposure, and fall detection.
By providing valuable, data-driven insights into workers’ physiological responses to extreme conditions, Bodytrak empowers leaders and medical staff to intervene when necessary, preventing injuries or fatalities. The real-time data and insights offered by Bodytrak significantly improve safety and productivity in the workplace.