Every summer thousands of American workers suffer from heat illness after working in hot conditions and not taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves. Often employers have not put in place safeguards and have failed to train their workers in heat illness prevention.
But even the most well-intentioned employers need to take extra precautions to ensure their employees’ safety. The biggest challenge in implementing a heat illness prevention program is cutting through misconceptions about heat illness and workers not understanding how to identify the initial signs of such illness.
You also have to make sure that your supervisors are all on board in protecting your workers. Just one bad supervisor who doesn’t allow an outdoor employee to take a rest or water break can put that person’s life at risk. Just one serious worker heat illness case or worse, a death, will result in steep fines by OSHA, and a likely spike in your workers’ comp insurance rates.
Here are some common challenges you may encounter when instituting a heat illness prevention policy for your staff, and how to deal with them:
Underestimating the risk
Many outdoor workers think they are immune to heat illness and will plow through, even when they feel discomfort, thirst, and symptoms of heatstroke. This machismo can only lead to trouble. They think that if they slow down, the other workers will see them as weak. And they believe that because they’ve worked often in the heat, they won’t be affected.
Unfortunately, heat illness symptoms can be subtle and easily misinterpreted as something small. For example, a worker may get a heat rash or cramps and dismiss them as just the result of hard work, when they should instead take a rest break in a shaded area and drink fluids – water or a sports drink is best.
Heat illness symptoms that are often dismissed as nothing serious include:
- Heavy sweating
Action: When the mercury exceeds 80 degrees make rest and shade breaks mandatory. Under Cal/OSHA guidelines, employers must provide access to shade and encourage employees to take a cool-down rest in the shade for at least five minutes every hour. Also, every workday should start with reminders about the symptoms of heat stress. Consider instituting a buddy system, as well.
Not drinking enough water
The most common way outdoor workers develop heat illness is by not drinking enough fluids. When they get dehydrated their concentration can wane, leading to mistakes that cause accidents and injuries. Many employees may think they only need to drink water or a sports drink when they feel thirsty. Or maybe they reach for a Coca-Cola or Mountain Dew instead of water.
Action: Provide enough fresh water so that each employee can drink at least 1 quart, or four 8 ounce glasses, of water per hour, and encourage them to do so. It should be readily available and accessible. Provide reusable water, so they can keep their water close at hand. Supervisors must enforce breaks on the hour during which employees should rehydrate.
With the expanding economy, employers have to hire more inexperienced workers. And with inexperience working in the heat comes the potential for danger, since the new workers may not recognize heat illness symptoms and the need for regular water and rest breaks.
Action: Pair new workers up with experienced ones, and do not let them start working without an introduction to heat illness prevention and the importance of following your safety rules.