Heat Stress Prevention in the Workplace
Learn about heat stress prevention and the steps you should take to keep your employees cool and safe during excessive heat.
Extreme heat can be an extremely dangerous work hazard with serious implications for worker safety. On average there are hundreds of heat stress fatalities in the U.S. each year, and with more extreme heat in the forecast, preparing your employees for hot weather work is going to be a top priority.
Currently, protecting your employees from heat stress falls under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) General Duty Clause and your overall duty of care to protect your employees from undue harm. Some states—California, Minnesota, and Michigan—have their own laws. But OSHA is working on new regulations related to heat safety and injury prevention that would put formal guidelines on how to handle heat safety in a work environment.
But with a few simple steps, you can reliably prevent heat stress and heat illness in the workplace. Keep reading to learn more about heat stress and how to prevent it during the lengthening periods of excessive heat your business faces.
What Is Heat Stress?
Heat stress means that someone has been exposed to extreme heat for too long without the ability to cool down. Heat stress can lead to heat-related injuries like heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. If left untreated, heat stress can even lead to death.
When you know that extreme heat conditions are likely, you can take actions to prevent dangerous exposure for your workers. Our comprehensive heat safety checklist includes an overview of the heat advisory, watch, and warning conditions. By tracking these extreme heat alerts from your local news or threat intelligence partner, you’ll be able to take appropriate—and necessary—steps to protect your people from possible heat stress before the danger is imminent.
The signs of heat stress
You and all your employees should know the signs of heat stress so they can identify and manage it immediately. The longer a person goes without assistance in excessive heat, the more likely they are to become seriously ill. Here are some of the symptoms of heat stress to look out for:
- Muscle pain
- Muscle spasms
- Elevated heart rate
- Heavy sweating
- Hot, dry skin
Certain medical conditions are risk factors of heat stress and related heat illnesses. Employees with heart disease, high blood pressure, or those taking certain medications should take extra precautions with their heat exposure.
If your employees are showing signs of heat illness, especially of heat stroke, get them medical attention immediately.
How to Prevent Heat Stress
While heat can be incredibly dangerous, preventing heat stress isn’t complicated. There are a few simple things, widely recommended by organizations like OSHA and NIOSH, that you can do to help keep your employees cool while they work and avoid the risk of heat stress.
Setting up these preventive measures is a great way to not only care for your employees working in hot environments but also get ahead of any upcoming requirements from OSHA. Here are some fundamental heat safety tips.
Change your work schedule
One easy way to prevent heat stress is acclimatization—that is, to make sure your employees aren’t working during the highest heat levels. If it’s possible, shift work schedules so you are working in the cooler part of the day, such as earlier mornings or later evenings. If you do have to work during the highest heat levels, make sure to acclimatize your employees to the temperature slowly over a few days so they can adjust.
It’s also a good idea to make sure every employee is scheduled to work with another co-worker present. Lone workers are more susceptible to missing the signs of heat stress and having a buddy system in place means there is always someone watching out. It can also be a good idea to train your employees in first aid, so they can help out their buddies if something does happen.
Shade & rest breaks
Providing shaded areas (or even better, indoor spaces or vehicles with air conditioning) where outdoor workers can take frequent breaks and cool off is critical to maintaining safe body temperatures.
Direct sunlight can raise the temperature in the work area by upwards of 10–15 degrees from the recorded temperature. Heat index and recorded temperature alone are not always good indicators of how your employees will fare in high temperatures. Use a wet bulb globe temperature monitor to get a more accurate reading of the environmental temperatures your employees will be working in.
Create a schedule for mandatory rest periods where workers can spend time in the shade or in cool areas. Give your employees an area with good ventilation, air conditioning or at least air movement, or other engineered controls for temperature so they can cool down. This goes for employees working inside in hot conditions, too, like those often found in workplaces with heat sources like factor furnaces or bakery ovens.
Preventing dehydration is a literal lifesaver during extreme heat. Heat-related illnesses like heat cramps and heat exhaustion are the result of dehydration on top of high body temperature. When your employees are working through physical activity and heavy sweating without plenty of fluids, their muscles and brain function will begin to suffer, resulting in the above illnesses.
To prevent this, simply provide cool water to your employees at all times. There should be enough drinking water for each person to drink eight ounces every 20 minutes. Provide ample water in rest areas and in the areas where employees are working. They should have free access to drink whenever they need it.
Providing electrolyte supplementation is a good way to support your employees’ hydration. Electrolytes are essential vitamins and minerals that are lost in sweat. So, while water alone is helpful, adding sports drinks or electrolyte ice pops can be even more beneficial.
The clothes your employees wear can also be adapted to help prevent heat stress. Generally, light, loose-fitting clothing made of breathable materials is the best option for working in hot weather, especially in direct sun exposure. They can help with the body’s ability to regulate temperature, and they can provide protection against sunburn.
There are some situations, however, where these types of clothing are not an option. When this is the case, such as when heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) is necessary or when radiant heat from machinery or equipment is simply too high, consider providing auxiliary cooling systems such as cooling vests/neck wraps or insulated clothing to help regulate body heat.
Preparing for Hotter Working Conditions
Excessive heat is a workplace safety hazard that is not going away any time soon. So don’t consider these measures of heat stress and heat illness prevention as temporary bandaids.
If you integrate these prevention tactics into the culture of your business, so they become a guaranteed part of everyday work, your business will be more resilient to the increases in length and severity of heat waves. Your employees will be safe, and your business can maintain operations effectively, even when temperatures soar.