Although heat hazards become particularly noticeable in the sweltering summer months, they're a year-round topic of focus for many workplaces--and they can exist both indoors and outdoors. Here's what to know and how to address heat hazards to promote workplace safety.
What Are Heat Hazards?
When it comes to preventing heat illness, your job is complicated. That's because heat hazards come in various types depending on the environment and task. Some are more severe than others, but all are a sign that heat isn't being managed properly and that workers could potentially be in serious danger.
A few key examples are:
- Heat stroke: When the body can no longer regulate its temperature, the result is heat stroke--a heat illness causing confusion, sweating, loss of consciousness, and potentially death.
- Heat exhaustion: While similar to heat stroke, heat exhaustion is somewhat less severe. Symptoms include headache, nausea, thirst, and irritability.
- Heat cramps: These cramps occur when the body loses too much salt and moisture through sweating. Pain and spasms generally occur in the arms and legs.
- Heat rashes: A heat rash is caused by excessive sweating and appears as blisters, pimples, or irritation.
Some of these issues can be signs of more serious conditions; for example, heat cramps can be symptoms of heat exhaustion. For this reason, even mild discomfort should be taken seriously.
OSHA and Heat Hazards
There are various OSHA guidelines that apply to heat hazards. The most important is the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This establishes an employer's responsibility to provide a workplace "free from recognized hazards," including heat-related hazards.
This means that OSHA doesn't have specific guidelines related to heat. However, in some cases, individual states run OSHA-approved plans with more targeted rules concerning heat hazards. For example, California's Heat Illness Prevention Standard, which requires employers to provide planning, training, water, and shade, is put into effect whenever temperatures hit 80°F. Minnesota and Washington also have heat-specific regulations.
It's also important for employers to review related standards, including:
- PPE: Understand the Personal Protective Equipment required for specific hazards.
- Recordkeeping: Know when and how to report certain illnesses or injuries; not all heat hazards and responses warrant a report.
- Sanitation: You're legally required to provide clean, drinkable water.
- Medical Services and First Aid: This refers to your responsibility to provide first aid training, resources, and personnel.
Effectively Addressing Heat Hazards
There are many ways to address heat hazards in the workplace. Here's how to get started:
#1: Understand Heat Factors
Various factors play a role in determining which heat hazards are present in a certain environment and how dangerous they might be. These include:
- Task/physical exertion.
- Length of exposure.
- Presence of heat sources.
- Personal risk factors.
Because these variables may be different between environments, days, and even individual workers, it's up to you to remain vigilant.
#2: Create Assessment Guidelines
Before you can accurately manage heat hazards, you have to know how to recognize them. That means establishing guidelines for risk assessment--for example, deciding what constitutes an "environmental change" (such as a certain shift in temperature) and how that will influence your responses. You should also decide when and how to check in on employees, particularly if they're new hires or working in a different environment, and what tools you'll use to measure heat and humidity.
#3: Establish Responses
It's important to respond quickly and effectively to various heat hazards. That means understanding the severity of each problem and providing the right kind of relief. For example, you should know when rest and a cold drink are in order vs. when to call 911. It's important to standardize these responses and make them available to all employees so your teams know what to do, when, and why.
#4: Consider Solutions
Treating heat-related illnesses and injuries is important, but prevention is even better. Analyze your environment to find out where potential problems could arise and determine whether there's any way to eliminate them ahead of time. For example, can you build work schedules to avoid the hottest parts of the day? Can you reorganize workflows to keep employees away from a particular heat source? Is there any flexibility to allow for an acclimation period when new hires are adapting to the environment or a new task is introduced?
Heat hazards are a serious consideration, both indoors and outdoors and at any time of the year. As an employer, it's your responsibility to protect your workers and provide the support necessary to address any issues that should arise.
Fortunately, you don't have to do it alone. Workplace safety training courses help you and your teams work together to create safer environments.
Contact us today to learn more about your options for heat hazard prevention training!