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Heat Stress: What is Your Responsibility as an Employer?

Heat Stress: What is Your Responsibility as an Employer?

Heat Stress: What is Your Responsibility as an Employer?


According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers have a responsibility to protect their workers from extreme heat. Every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill from heat exhaustion at work. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S., and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 815 heat-related worker deaths and 70,000 heat-related serious injuries between 1992 and 2017 (OSHA 10hr Training, n.d.). To protect workers, employers should establish a complete heat illness prevention program in addition to observing the Heat Index.


How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion in the Workplace

Under OSHA law, employers must have the appropriate measures in place to protect workers and establish a complete heat illness prevention program that includes:

  • Education: Provide training to employees and supervisors on the signs of heat stress and illness, as well as the preventative measures that can protect against heat exhaustion at work.
  • Hydration: Make sure employees always have access to fluids and encourage frequent breaks for hydration.
  • Shade: Provide areas of shade for employees to rest in during breaks or when working in direct sunlight.
  • Clothing: Supply appropriate clothing for employees who are working in high heat environments, such as light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Monitoring: Regularly monitor the heat index to ensure that employees are not exposed to dangerous levels of heat.
  • Acclimatization: Allow for a gradual increase in exposure to hot temperatures to ensure that employees can safely adjust to the heat.
  • Rest: Make sure that employees have access to rest and recovery periods throughout the day, especially when the heat index is high.

It is important for employers to recognize the warning signs of heat stress and illness and keep their workers safe. Signs of heat stress and illness can include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Fainting

It is also important for workers to be aware of risk factors such as high temperature and humidity, direct sun exposure, physical exertion, and medications. The Heat Index is a system created by the National Weather Service (NWS) to indicate the risk of heat-related illness for workers exposed to hot and humid conditions. The risk of heat-related illness increases as the weather gets hotter and more humid and is especially serious when hot weather arrives suddenly early in the season, before workers have had a chance to adapt to warm weather.

The Heat Index Risk Level Protective Measures include:

  • Lower (Caution): Basic heat safety and planning
  • Moderate: Implement precautions and heighten awareness
  • High: Additional precautions to protect workers
  • Very High to Extreme: Triggers even more aggressive protective measures

Risk factors that must be taken into consideration even when the heat index is lower include having workers work in direct sunlight, perform prolonged or strenuous work, or wear heavy protective clothing or impermeable suits. Workers at higher risk of experiencing heat exhaustion at work include those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications that may be affected by extreme heat.


The Added Stress of Poor Air Quality

The US Department of Labor has released a bulletin on June 9, 2023, outlining how employers can protect outdoor workers from the hazards associated with poor air quality caused by Canadian wildfires. These hazards include exposure to particulate matter, heat stress, eye and respiratory tract irritation, and hazardous substances.

Employers should monitor air quality conditions, relocate or reschedule work tasks to smoke-free areas, reduce levels of physical activity, encourage workers to take breaks in smoke-free places, make accommodations for employees to work inside with proper HVAC systems and high efficiency air filters, and provide or allow the use of NIOSH-approved respirators for voluntary use.

Heat Stress Awareness

Employees must be able to recognize the risk factors of heat illness and know what to do if they are experiencing symptoms. By providing safety training for heat illness and stress awareness, employers can help keep their employees safe.

July 24, 2023