With this year expected to be the hottest on record, the risk to workers continues to climb. More hot days and more frequent heat waves pose a real threat when it comes to occupational illness and injuries.
Continuous exposure to extreme heat and hot environments puts individuals at risk for heat stress symptoms, ranging from discomfort to serious illness. Those who work outdoors are the most vulnerable, but indoor workers are also at risk depending on the working environment. Age, medical history, physical fitness and medications can dramatically increase an individual’s vulnerability to the effects of heat stress.
Consider this your wake-up call to the realities of heat stress. Not taking appropriate action to mitigate the risk could lead to higher operating costs, a loss in productivity, and serious injury including death.
Perhaps the most commonly thought of and understood symptoms of heat stress are the easy-to-see, physical symptoms that can manifest anywhere that temperatures rise. Heat stress can contribute to known heat-related illnesses, such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke, specifically, is a life-threatening illness and should be treated as a medical emergency.
The Costs of Heat Stress
If you’ve ever needed to sit down and drink some water after a day of walking through an amusement park or at a long ball game, think of how difficult it is to make it through the day in a labor-intensive job. These labor-intensive jobs deserve special consideration as things heat up. Warehouses, industrial spaces, and commercial buildings often suffer a common problem: moderate to excessive heat that can impact safety and productivity. Depending on your location, you could be in violation of federal, state and local statutes such as OSHA, California Title 24 Part 6 and ASHRAE 55. Take direct action to keep workers safe and protect them from the effects of heat stress.
Injuries can also occur in the workplace due to other contributing factors and the relation that they have to the unfavorable conditions brought on by these rising temperatures. The possibility of slips, trips and falls increases due to decreased visibility from fogged safety glasses or goggles. When grip is decreased on sweaty hands and fingers, fractures can occur if items are dropped from above. Workers who are distracted by fatigue and exhaustion can injure themselves due to inattention in hazardous environments.
Heat stress can have detrimental effects on worker productivity. According to a study conducted by Olli Seppanen and William Fisk at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland, worker performance starts to decrease at temperatures above 77 °F and an additional 2% decrease in performance is seen for every additional 1.8 °F increase up to 90°F. Above 90°F, heat-related illness risk increases and safety becomes a greater concern.
Undesirable costs are also part of the baggage that comes with businesses when employees are experiencing heat stress. Workers’ compensation costs will increase for those who sustain injuries or illnesses while working.
Also, employee turnover can be costly for those who resign due to hot conditions in their workplace. A new generation of workers is empowered to seek and find a comfortable place to work that appeals to their desire to be happy and creative. Recruitment efforts and retraining, also costly effects are inevitable if workers are suffering from the effects of heat illness. Unknown costs such as negative reviews online about a company and worker conditions can be detrimental to the continued success of staffing and operating a profitable business.
Addressing Heat Stress
The key to handling heat stress lies in prevention. Fortunately, there are some proven strategies for preventing heat stress:
Your first line of defense in protecting your employees is training. Worker and manager training should be conducted often to ensure that they are educated, empowered and encouraged to take action should they recognize the warning signs of heat stress in a worker or if a medical emergency arises.
By establishing a behavior-based training program, the likelihood of early detection is higher. Behavior-based safety observations encourage workers to be vigilant of unsafe behaviors in the workplace and intentional about discussing safer methods to avoid injury.
Drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated are the first lines of defense against heat illnesses. Drinks containing caffeine and alcohol should be avoided, as these types of drinks can be dehydrating. Sports drinks are convenient and a popular solution to combat dehydration.
However, this is only true if the beneficial vitamins and minerals are included in the list of ingredients and if consumed in moderation. Otherwise, you can develop an electrolyte imbalance which can have a host of unpleasant symptoms. Water is the best way to avoid the adverse effects of heat stress.
Rethinking Your Wardrobe
In some industries, the required personal protective equipment can wear up to 75 pounds. By wearing lightweight clothing, you can increase airflow and assist in keeping your body cool.
It’s also important to consider the color of your clothing. Dark clothing absorbs harmful ultraviolet rays, which contribute to your body’s inability to keep cool. Light-colored clothing can reflect these rays, leading to less heat stored in and near your body. They say black is slimming, but what good is a nice figure if you aren’t alive to enjoy it?
Taking frequent breaks
Allow employees to take breaks that extend beyond local, state, and federal guidelines. Labor laws and other guidelines only detail the minimum requirements. Providing additional breaks to allow employees to rest, rehydrate and refocus are the best lines of defense to building a work environment that is not only safe but desirable for the workers.
New employees should be given an acclimation period to allow body conditioning in hot environments. This is especially important for younger workers or workers that have not previously spent significant amounts of time working in a hot environment. Not only does it improve health and safety, but it influences your company’s reputation. Word of mouth is much more powerful than we realize and can cause irreversible damage to your reputation as an employer in the community.
Air conditioning is great, but not always a practical solution for your space. Whether it’s the high cost and inefficiency in large industrial spaces or the impracticality of providing air conditioning outdoors, other solutions are often more appropriate. Fans, misters, and swamp coolers provide portability and cooling to make the body feel up to 10 degrees cooler or even lower the temperature.
The recent AMCA article “Reducing Climate-Change-Induced Heat Strain and HVAC Performance Loss With Circulating Fans” lays out the case for high-volume, low-speed overhead fans as a solution to combat the effects of rising temperatures.
So, while hotter days and more frequent heat waves are all but a certainty, that doesn’t mean that you and your employees have to suffer through it. By utilizing the tools and behaviors previously outlined, it’s possible to create safer, more comfortable conditions for employees and occupants.
In addition to the benefits listed above, this will have the added effect of generating positive word-of-mouth within your community and company. Take this opportunity to protect your team, your bottom line, and your reputation with a proactive approach to preventing heat stress.
This article originally appeared in the August 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
“In 2020, the loss of labor as a result of heat exposure cost the economy about $100 billion, a figure projected to grow to $500 billion annually by 2050.”Adrienne Arsht-RockefellerFoundation Resilience Center