The rising temperatures and elevated humidity of summer bring an increased danger to employees that spend extended periods of time working outdoors, or indoors in facilities without air conditioning. It is crucial that employers take the steps necessary to keep their employees safe in this extreme weather. By understanding the hazards, workplace injury and illness due to heat can be avoided.
To avoid workers' compensation issues, employers must monitor all workers exposed to excessive heat. Providing heat stress training is a wise first step, so employees know the risks involved, how to prevent heat-related illnesses and how to recognize the symptoms.
Employers should also plan their exposed employees' workday schedule to adjust to control the risk. Such planning should aim to:
-- Schedule hot jobs and heavy work for the cooler part of the day.
-- Provide cool water to workers throughout the day and not just at break periods.
-- Provide more frequent, shorter breaks, in the shade or cool area as much as possible.
-- Acclimate workers by progressively exposing them to hot work environments.
-- Reduce the physical demands of workers during extreme heat.
-- Use extra workers to complete physically demanding projects.
-- Allow and encourage employees to wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing.
-- Keep in mind that protective clothing or equipment may increase the risk of heat stress.
When working under hot conditions during the summer months, such things as simply making sure your employees are drinking plenty of fluids and providing them with frequent rest breaks can be a life or death decision.
Heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable. Have employees look out for other co-workers, especially those who work alone. Check the weather forecasts. Pay attention. Be prepared, and train your employees to recognize the signs of heat-related illnesses.
KNOW THE SIGNS
Employers can reduce their workers' compensation exposure by knowing the signs of heat-related illnesses and making workplace adjustments.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), thousands of employees suffer from heat-related problems on the job. When the body cannot compensate for fluids and salt lost through perspiration, body temperature begins to rise and heat-related illness may develop. The effects range from temporary discomfort to immediate threats on a worker's life that requires emergency response.
Heat-related illnesses progress in three steps: heat cramps, heat exhaustion followed by heat stroke. The first signs of trouble are typically heat-related muscle cramps. Stop the activity and gently stretch the affected muscles. Slowly rehydrate. Workers should notify a supervisor.
The next stage is heat exhaustion, which occurs when heat and/or work activity overwhelms the body's cooling systems. Signs of heat exhaustion include profuse sweating, extreme weakness or fatigue, dizziness or confusion, nausea, pale or flushed complexion, slightly elevated body temperature, clammy skin, and rapid and shallow breathing.
First aid for heat exhaustion should be provided immediately. The employee should be moved to a cool, shady area if outdoors, or to an air-conditioned building if possible. Taking a cool shower will bring relief, or if outdoors, the clothing and skin can be doused with water. Fanning the employee will also help cool them down. Slowly rehydrate. If the employee refuses water, vomits or loses consciousness, employees should be trained to call 9-1-1 and a supervisor.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion will progress into a heat stroke. This third stage is a life-threatening condition, causing death or permanent disability.
An employee suffering from heat stroke can become disoriented and confused or may lose consciousness. Other signs include vomiting; high body temperature; rapid and weak pulse; rapid and shallow breathing; and skin that is dry, red and hot. Employees should immediately call 9-1-1 and then a supervisor. Follow the cooling measures as you would for heat exhaustion, but focus on cooling the body very quickly. Place ice packs on the neck, wrists and ankles. Keep the worker at rest, lying down until help arrives.
In response this spring, OSHA launched a national outreach initiative to educate workers and employers about the hazards of working outdoors in the heat and ways to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths. Their message is simple: water, rest and shade.
OSHA provides educational materials regarding working in the heat that employers can use during workplace training. Here's the website with information and resources on heat-related illnesses.
MARK NOONAN is a managing principal and the senior knowledge manager for workers' compensation for the Casualty Practice within Integro Insurance Brokers.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not reflect the position of this publication or Integro Insurance Brokers.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
July 7, 2011
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