Record High Temps and Worker Protection

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In recent weeks, the US has seen record high temperatures in almost every state across the country. These triple digit temperatures may rise even further across the southern part of the US. According to PBS, “July has been so hot thus far that scientists calculate that this month will be the hottest globally on record and likely the warmest human civilization has seen, even though there are several days left to sweat through”.

This is bad news for millions of workers who are exposed to this extreme heat in their workplaces. USA Today reported, “The heat is already being blamed for at least 18 confirmed deaths in the Phoenix metro area, with 69 other deaths suspected to be heat-related as of July 15.” Raising temperatures are such a concern that President Biden has asked the Department of Labor (DOL) to issue a “hazard alert for heat” for the first time.

The Hazard Alert

The alert is Biden’s effort to bring attention to the threat of rising temperatures caused by climate change and the fact that workers have heat-related protections under federal law.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not currently have a safety regulation that addresses heat related illness but is working to develop a national standard to do just that. However, workers are protected under the “General Duty Clause” which states that all employers provide a work environment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm”.

California, Minnesota and Washington, states that have their own OSHA “state programs” do have their own heat standards. The California standard was the first to enforce the principles of heat safety: water, rest, shade and acclimatization. A temperature of 80°F triggers the California standard’s requirements. It is expected that the upcoming federal standard will be similar to what California has already put in place.

Until the federal regulation is put into place, the DOL will provide information on what employers should do to protect workers. OSHA also plans to increase enforcement of heat-safety violations, particularly in the construction and agriculture industries where workers are typically exposed to extreme heat. Biden has stated that these new measures will help to shield workers from high temperatures, improve weather forecasting, increase access to drinking water on the job, and otherwise improve heat resilience.

About Heat-related Illness

The current heat threat is real. According to federal statistics, heat has killed more than 400 US workers since 2011. Yet these deaths are preventable if employers provide water, rest, shade and allow new workers some time to get acclimated to working in the heat.

Heat-related illness can involve everything from a heat rash to heat stroke, the most severe form of illness caused by heat. Heatstroke can cause multisystem organ failure that has lasting adverse effects and even death.

Types of heat related illnesses

  • Heat cramps are a mild form of heat illness and consist of painful muscle cramps and spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat.
  • A more serious heat-related illness is heat exhaustion or heat stress. Heat exhaustion  occurs when there is a loss of water and salt in the body. It is common in conditions of extreme heat and excessive sweating without the proper fluid and salt replacement. Heat exhaustion happens when the body is not able to cool itself properly and, if left untreated, can progress to heat stroke.
  • Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness, and it occurs when the body’s heat-regulating system is overwhelmed by excessive heat. The body, put simply, shuts down. It is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect that a worker is suffering from heat stroke you should call 911 immediately and provide first aid until paramedics arrive. This could mean the difference between life and death.

Prevention Tips

Preventing these illnesses is key. Employers should be aware of the dangers of heat-related illness and make every effort to ensure workers are safe when working in hot environments.

Below are some prevention tips with resources to give additional guidance:

  • Ensure workers drink plenty of fluids during vigorous or outdoor activities especially on hot days.
  • Workers should stay hydrated. Drinks of choice include water and sports drinks. Fluids with caffeine, such as tea, coffee, and cola should be avoided, as these can lead to dehydration.
  • Workers should dress in light colored, lightweight, tightly-woven, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Attempt to schedule vigorous activity during cooler times of the day.
  • Make sure workers take rest periods in shady or cool areas.
  • For new workers, increase time spent working in the heat gradually to allow their body to get used to the heat.
  • Asses how hot is too hot – this depends on the job being done , the environment, and the worker.
  • Have workers use the buddy system and know how to spot heat-illness signs