by John E. Hall
With much of the country in line for high temperatures this summer, employers should be mindful of employees’ exposure to heat hazards on the job. Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no heat standard, the agency has become increasingly willing to cite employers for employees’ heat exposure under Section 5(A)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), commonly known as the General Duty Clause.
Unfortunately, many citations occur after employees have suffered fatal or life-threatening exposure to heat hazards. Examples of such cases include the following:
- In one case, coworkers observed an employee of a planing mill walking and acting in a strange manner. He lost consciousness, and emergency help was summoned. Resuscitative measures were taken, and the employee was transferred to a medical center, where he died.
- A second case involved a masonry laborer working a construction job when the temperature exceeded 91ºF without any protective measures being taken by the employer.
- An employee working in a sawmill was pulling cut lumber from a green chain when he became dizzy and started to stagger. His supervisor ordered him to take a break, but upon returning to work, the employee began to stagger again and fainted. He was rushed to the hospital, where he arrived unconscious with a temperature of 108ºF. Upon being transported to a major hospital, he died without regaining consciousness.
- In another case, a 31-year-old construction worker who had been leveling gravel and installing forms for a swimming pool in extreme heat had to be air-lifted to a trauma center. He was later pronounced dead.
In July 2013, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA David Michaels held a press conference at which he asked for help with publicizing his agency’s heat stress awareness campaign. Michaels noted five key pieces of advice in addressing this occupational hazard:
- Drink water every 15 minutes regardless of whether you are thirsty.
- Rest in the shade to cool down.
- Wear a hat and light-colored clothing.
- Learn the signs of heat stress and what to do in an emergency.
- Keep an eye on fellow workers.
OSHA offers online materials on preventing heat illness at www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/index.html. It also offers information on indoor heat stress at www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/. The agency addresses heat-stress hazards in specific standards for the general industry, and some states, such as California, have developed specific standards for those who work outdoors and are exposed to extreme heat.
Regarding outdoor workers, OSHA says the risk for heat illnesses increases with high temperatures and humidity, no breeze or wind, and direct exposure to the sun. Previous heat illnesses, low consumption of liquids, heavy physical labor, waterproof clothing, and not having been exposed recently to hot workplaces also are risk factors. In addition, workers need to know that caffeinated or alcoholic beverages won’t help prevent heat illnesses—plain cool water is needed. They should drink at least one pint of water (two eight-ounce glasses) every hour. And they should drink water before they become thirsty, OSHA says.
Signs of trouble
OSHA also lists signs of heat illness: headaches, dizziness, or fainting, weakness and wet skin, irritability or confusion, and thirst, nausea, or vomiting. Heat rash and heat cramps may occur as well. Thirst, nausea, and vomiting indicate serious trouble.
Symptoms of the most serious heat illness, heat stroke, include confusion, inability to think clearly, passing out or collapsing, and having seizures or fits. The person may stop sweating, indicating her body can no longer cool itself.
Getting immediate help for someone with heat illness can be a matter of life and death. Call 911 immediately, and apply ice as soon as possible at signs of confusion, lack of alertness, or any other sign of heat stroke. For signs of heat illness short of heat stroke, workers should call a supervisor for help, and if no supervisor is available, they should call 911. Until help arrives, someone should stay with the ill worker, who should be taken to a cooler or shaded area. Remove outer clothing, fan and mist the worker with water, apply ice bags or ice towels, and provide cool drinking water if the person is able to drink.
John E. Hall is the OSHA consultant for Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C. Before working with the firm, he was the OSHA area director and worked for 29 years with the agency in training and compliance programs, investigations, enforcement actions, and setting OSHA priorities. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .