Heat-related injuries are a serious concern in many workplaces, especially those involving physical labor and outdoor work during the warmer months. Workers in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and other physically demanding industries are particularly at risk.
Exposure to high temperatures and humidity, direct sun exposure, physical exertion, and lack of proper hydration can lead to various heat-related illnesses and injuries. These can range from mild conditions like heat cramps to more severe and potentially life-threatening conditions such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Creating a safe work environment is a shared responsibility between employers and employees. Learn to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and implement strategies to prevent these conditions. Working with a workplace injury attorney can help you seek appropriate compensation if you suffer from a workplace illness related to heat.
Anyone can get sick from heat-related injuries, but employees who work in extreme heat are especially vulnerable. Strenuous physical labor, hot environments, and wearing clothing that traps body heat put workers at risk of suffering heat-related illnesses.
When workers are exposed to intense heat without prior acclimatization, their bodies may struggle to cope with the heat stress, causing a high risk of heat-related illnesses and deaths. Approximately 9,235 people are hospitalized every year because of the heat, with 702 deaths on average.
Recognizing the signs of heat-related illness is the first step toward preventing serious complications. The symptoms often start mild but can become severe if left untreated. Heat-related conditions and their symptoms include:
- Heat Stroke: Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and can be life-threatening. It occurs when the body’s temperature regulation system fails, and the core body temperature rises to dangerous levels.
Symptoms include dry or hot skin, dizziness, a high body temperature (above 103°F), rapid heartbeat, headache, confusion, and loss of consciousness. Immediate medical attention is required for heat stroke.
- Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is a less severe but still a serious heat-related illness. It results from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, leading to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.
Symptoms include heavy sweating, pale or clammy skin, weakness, fatigue, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, and fainting. Heat exhaustion requires prompt attention and should be treated by moving to a cooler environment, resting, and rehydrating.
- Heat Cramps: This heat injury refers to muscle spasms that can occur during or after performing intense physical activity in a hot work environment. They are caused by the loss of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, through excessive sweating. Common areas affected by cramps include the abdomen, arms, and legs.
Symptoms include muscle pain or tightness, visible muscle contractions, and excessive sweating. Resting in a cool place, stretching, and rehydrating with electrolyte-rich fluids help alleviate heat cramps.
Preventing heat-related injuries on the job is a multi-faceted process requiring proactive measures from employers and employees. Employers should foster a work culture where safety is prioritized, and workers feel comfortable speaking up about unsafe conditions.
The following are important steps to help keep workers safe and prevent heat illnesses:
- Acclimatization: Acclimatization is important for new workers during the warm season and in heat waves. Employers can implement acclimatization measures such as providing more frequent breaks and scheduling shorter work shifts to help workers tolerate hot conditions.
- Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids. It’s recommended that workers drink 8 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes rather than relying on feeling thirsty to drink. Avoid beverages that can dehydrate you, such as coffee, tea, and alcohol.
- Rest Breaks: Regular breaks in cool, shaded areas and air-conditioned rooms can help prevent overheating. Encourage workers to rest if they’re feeling overheated.
- Proper Clothing: Lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing can help keep workers cool. Use hats and UV-absorbent clothing, and encourage workers to apply sunscreen to protect against sunburn.
- Education: Instruct workers and supervisors on recognizing heat-related illnesses and providing first aid if someone becomes ill. This should be part of ongoing safety training.
- Monitoring: Watch out for each other and offer help when needed. Some signs of heat-related illnesses can be subtle or misunderstood, but early recognition can prevent serious injury or even death.
- Proper Ventilation and Cooling: Ensure workers can access indoor environments with ventilation and cooling systems. Employers should provide air conditioning when possible or install fans to cool the area and increase airflow.
- Rescheduling Work: Move heavy tasks to cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or evening. The coolest part of the day is just after sunrise, while the hottest time is between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.; if scheduling is flexible, try to work around these times.
- Heat Alert Program: When a heatwave is forecasted, implement a heat alert program where additional precautions would be taken. Consider using the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool App to provide real-time heat index updates and messages about heat stress avoidance protocol.
Your employer has a legal responsibility to provide a safe working environment. This includes taking reasonable steps to prevent heat-related illnesses in the workplace.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers must identify potential hazards that could cause harm to employees, such as high heat conditions, and take action to mitigate these risks.
Employers must provide access to sufficient drinking water, allowing for adequate rest periods, and ensure workers have access to shaded areas, especially when working in high-heat conditions. Employers should also implement heat illness prevention programs that teach workers to recognize, prevent, and treat heat illnesses.
Working in extreme heat can be challenging, but understanding the risks and taking preventative measures can reduce the potential for heat-related injuries. Remember, your employer has a responsibility to provide safe working conditions.
If you feel your rights are being overlooked or you’ve suffered a heat-related injury at work, contact an attorney at Catalano Law for a complimentary case review. We can review the details of your case and determine if you can file for compensation for your damages.