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Summer Stress: Protecting Workers From Heat Exposure

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In 2016, over 700 people statewide were sent to the emergency room for heat-related illnesses, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (DPHE). Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2010 show that nearly 4,200 people missed work due to injuries or illnesses caused by heat exposure, and 40 people died from exposure.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t have a specific heat-related standard, but it does require that employers protect workers from known safety hazards, including those caused by their environment. As temperatures climb in Colorado, builders should review their safety plan to make sure they adequately address extreme heat.

“Workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments indoors or outdoors, or even those engaged in strenuous physical activities, may be at risk for heat stress,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In 2016, the agency released an updated “Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments” to address the impact of heat exposure on workers.

RELATED: Worker Groups Petition OSHA for Heat-stress Standard

In mid-July, a consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, and several other stakeholders petitioned OSHA to issue a standard to protect workers from extreme heat.

“Despite NIOSH having issued three separate ‘Criteria for a Recommended Standard’ documents for heat stress,” the petitioners wrote, “OSHA has never promulgated a federal standard to protect workers from heat stress.”

The petition calls for a standard based on NIOSH’s 2016 criteria, including mandatory rest breaks, PPE that specifically addresses heat and an acclimatization plan, among other things.

Heat-related illnesses

Extreme heat can lead to a series of illnesses, the most serious of which is heat stroke. Heat stroke is when a person’s core temperature rises enough to disrupt the central nervous system and leads to unconsciousness or seizures. Look for dizziness or nausea, headache, a fast pulse and confusion as symptoms of heat stroke.

There’s a common perception that as long as a worker is still sweating, they’re not in danger heat stroke. However, NIOSH notes that with exertional heat stroke, workers will often continue sweating.

Workers who show signs of heat stroke need immediate medical attention, including calling 911 and taking steps to cool down the sick worker, such as removing PPE or extra clothing, moving them to a cooler place and applying cold, wet cloth or ice to the head, neck, armpits or groin.

Heat stroke is frequently preceded by heat exhaustion. Symptoms of both include headaches, nausea, dizziness, feeling weak, irritability and dehydration. NIOSH notes that some workers may continue to perform well even while suffering symptoms of heat exhaustion.

Muscle cramps can also be caused by overheating, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recommends taking a break, moving to a cooler place and rehydrating to treat heat cramps, but if the cramps last longer than an hour, it’s time to get medical help. The agency also notes that if workers have heart conditions or are on a low-sodium diet, cramps could require a doctor’s attention.

Less serious conditions include sunburn, of course, and heat rash, which includes small red bumps like pimples, or white bumps similar to goosebumps.

Developing a safety plan

In addition to the various heat-related illnesses that home building professionals are subject to, they’re also at greater risk of injury when working in extreme heat, “as it may result in sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness, and may reduce brain function responsible for reasoning ability, creating additional hazards,” according to NIOSH.

Rest, water and acclimatization are critical to a heat safety plan.

Although OSHA doesn’t have explicit standards addressing acceptable heat exposure limits, there are some recommendations for how long a worker can safely work in hot conditions. NIOSH recommends that at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, workers performing moderate work take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes worked at that temperature, taking longer breaks and shorter work periods as the temperature increases. Workers doing heavy work should follow the same recommendation at just 95 degrees.

PPE lowers the temperature at which workers need to take breaks to cool off even more.Colorado’s dry climate makes it easier for the body to naturally cool itself through sweating, but bulky personal protective equipment disrupts that function.

In addition to providing rest and water breaks, a key part of a heat safety plan should include getting workers acclimated to working in extreme heat, including seasonal workers returning after a few months off the job.

“Employers should have an acclimatization plan for new and returning workers, because lack of acclimatization has been shown to be a major factor associated with worker heat-related illness and death,” according to NIOSH.

An analysis of OSHA citations between 2012 and 2013 found 20 cases of heat-related illnesses or deaths, NIOSH found. Most of those cases involved companies that didn’t have an adequate heat safety plan, which were most commonly deficient in acclimating workers to extreme heat.

Workers can become acclimatized to heat after one to two weeks of daily exposure, according to NIOSH, and a few days away from work or working inside don’t appear to reduce acclimatization significantly. Acclimatized workers can perform the same tasks with a lower core temperature and heart rate, and they begin sweating earlier in their work, making their bodies more efficient at preventing heat-related illness.

However, acclimatization doesn’t mean the workers themselves are more efficient. NIOSH warns that acclimatized workers are not necessarily able to work at higher temperatures without adverse effects. For example, because acclimatized workers begin sweating before other workers, they need more water than nonacclimatized workers.

Finally, employers should train workers to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses, as well as the off-the-job factors that can exacerbate heat stress, such as alcohol consumption, medications or health conditions.

“A buddy system should be initiated, in which workers on hot jobs are taught to recognize the early signs and symptoms of heat-related illness,” NIOSH recommends. “Any worker who exhibits signs and symptoms of an impending heat-related illness should be sent to the first-aid station for more complete evaluation and possible initiation of first-aid treatment.”

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