The summer of 2007 is turning out to be one of the hottest on record, particularly in the western states – and it’s not over yet. During the last 20 years, well over 8,000 people have died in our country due to heat exposure—more than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined! Extreme heat is defined as an outdoor temperature that hovers 10 degrees or more above the average high temperature and lasts for several weeks under a “dome” of high pressure. See the National Weather Service Heat Index for a color-coded chart depicting the likelihood of heat disorders with prolonged exposure or strenuous activity.
Heat poses severe risks for many workers, such as outdoor workers, workers in confined spaces, workers who are overweight, who have heart conditions, or who are on certain medications. The risks are so high for agricultural and other outdoor workers that some states have enacted mandatory heat stress rules for outdoor workers.
An article in EHS Today on Beating the Heat suggests practical steps an employer can take:
- Encourage workers to drink plenty of water—about a cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes, even if they are not thirsty —and avoid alcohol, coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks that dehydrate the body.
- Help workers adjust to the heat by assigning a lighter workload and longer rest periods for the first five to seven days of intense heat. This process needs to start all over again when a worker returns from vacation or absence from the job.
- Encourage workers to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Workers should change their clothes if they get completely saturated.
- Use general ventilation and spot cooling at points of high heat production. Good airflow increases evaporation and cooling of the skin.
- Train first-aid workers to recognize and treat the signs of heat stress and be sure all workers know who has been trained to detect early signs of heat-related illness. Permit workers to interrupt their work if they become extremely uncomfortable.
- Consider a worker’s physical condition when determining fitness to work in hot environments. Obesity, lack of conditioning, pregnancy and inadequate rest can increase susceptibility to heat stress.
- Alternate work and rest periods, with rest periods in a cooler area. Shorter, more frequent work-rest cycles are best. Schedule heavy work for cooler times of the day and use appropriate protective clothing.
- Monitor temperatures, humidity and workers’ responses to heat at least hourly.
Here are some additional resources for protecting employees from extreme heat:
OSHA Quick Card on Heat Stress – PDF – in English and Spanish
OSHA Fact Sheet: Working Outdoors in Warm Climates – PDF
OSHA Technical Manual on Heat Stress
CDC Tips for Preventing Heat-Related Illness
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat
Risks at home
The Centers for Disease Control reports that young children and the elderly are most at risk for heat because they are less likely to sense and respond to significant changes in temperature. The CDC has devised guidelines to help us protect our elderly relatives and friends as summer temperatures rise – something you may want to circulate to employees:
- Monitor Those at High Risk: If you know someone 65 or older, be sure to call them twice a day during heat waves. Be aware that heat induced illness can cause an older person to become confused or disoriented so engage in some discussion. Don’t just ask them how they feel.
- Be Sure that High Risk Individuals Have Adequate Cooling: Many elderly citizens rely on simple electric fans for relief; but fans only move rather than cool the air. If air-conditioning equipment is beyond one’s budget, contact your local senior center which may be aware of cash grants or have equipment available on loan.
- Assist with Meal Preparation: The use of stoves or hot ovens for cooking only adds to the ambient temperature during heat waves. You can greatly assist your elderly loved one by stocking their refrigerators with salads and cold plate items which will preclude the need for heavy cooking and may prove to be more appropriate and appetizing hot weather meals.
- Become Familiar with Weather Related Terms: For example, the heat index is a temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that tells us how hot it really feels when the humidity is factored in. Thus, the heat index is more significant than the actual air temperature when the well being of those at risk is being considered.
- Be Ready to Activate a Plan of Action: Be aware of the symptoms of a heat emergency, including an extremely high body temperature (above 103°, orally); red, hot skin with no sweating; a rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache, dizziness or nausea, and confusion. Don’t hesitate to get the person to a medical facility immediately.