August 5, 2016
By Aaron Corvin
As temperatures rise this – and every – summer, employers face a critical task: helping workers protect themselves against heat-related illnesses.
During hot weather, especially with high humidity, body temperature can surge to alarming levels if workers don't drink enough water and don't rest in the shade. They can suffer from heat cramps, exhaustion, or stroke.
The dangers aren't imaginary. The consequences of failing to establish a heat-illness prevention program are all too real.
Nationally, in 2014 alone, 2,630 workers suffered from heat illness and 18 died from heat stroke and related causes on the job. From 2011 through 2015, 28 people received benefits through Oregon's workers' compensation system for heat-related illnesses (at least three days away from work).
Hoffman Construction Company is very aware of these compelling statistics.
And Tony Howard, safety director for Hoffman, is well ahead of the risks of heat stress. He oversees a comprehensive prevention program for Hoffman, based in Portland and one of the largest general contractors in the U.S.
The top goal "is to get every one of our workers home safe to their families each night," Howard said.
Oregon OSHA addresses the issue through various workplace health and safety rules. Those include general environmental controls, extraordinary hazards, sanitation, and personal protective equipment. The agency also offers public outreach and educational materials, including English and Spanish videos and publications about preventing heat-related illnesses.
In the months ahead, Oregon OSHA expects to gather stakeholders for a meeting to begin further exploring how to best keep workers safe in the heat.
"We don't know whether we will move forward with a proposed rule, but that's certainly one option on the table," said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA. "In any case, we want to take a look at our educational efforts – and at the enforcement tools that we already have available – to see if we're making the best use of them."
Heat stress in the workplace is poised to become an even bigger issue in the years ahead in light of the effects of climate change, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
"Climate change can amplify existing health and safety issues and new unanticipated hazards may emerge," NIOSH said in the bulletin "Climate Change: A Risk for Workers," issued in May. "Workers may also be exposed to conditions that the general public can elect to avoid, and workforce increases are likely in jobs that are most affected by climate change such as wildland firefighting, as well as in industries that will emerge in response to it, including renewable energy."
The federal agency calls for further research "to better understand and characterize the potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate or adapt to these hazards."
For now, best practices are available to employers and workers to shield against the hazards of hot weather. Those include performing the heaviest, most labor-intensive work during the coolest part of the day, drinking plenty of cool water, working in pairs to monitor the heat, and taking frequent short breaks in cool, shaded areas.
It's especially important to take such steps in Oregon.
"Workers in Oregon tend to be more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses, because they're used to working in mild weather and often not acclimated to this type of heat," said Penny Wolf-McCormick, health enforcement manager for Oregon OSHA.
Hoffman's heat-stress prevention program can serve as a model for others. It encompasses regular communication, training, and planning to head off problems.
"The first thing we do is get with our subcontractors," Howard said. "We want to see their heat stress prevention plan. We want to make sure these guys are thinking about this particularly hard and to tell us what they're going to do to make sure people stay safe out there."
It also involves setting up special facilities for workers.
At Hoffman job sites, you'll find enclosed cooling stations where workers can grab some water, relax, and enjoy air conditioning. Inside the structures, emergency-response protocols are posted on walls, and first-aid supplies are available. Urine color charts inform workers of whether they're properly hydrated.
Likewise, you'll find portable cooling trailers at Hoffman sites. Powered by generators, the selfcontained ventilation trailers spray a fine mist of water. Workers can climb aboard and cool off.
Other components of Hoffman's program to prevent heat stress include early start times so workers avoid the worst of the heat; wide-brim hard hats; regular breaks for water and shade; and use of federal OSHA's heat stress app for mobile phones.
The heat stress app calculates the heat index for you. Based on the heat index, the app displays a risk level to workers. It then provides reminders about the protective measures that should be taken to protect workers from heat stress.
For Howard, heat stress prevention makes so much sense.
It's about keeping workers both safe and productive, even as summer heats up. "It benefits everybody," he said. "We see it as a win-win."
Employers can calculate the heat index for their worksites with the federal OSHA heat stress app for mobile phones.
A number of other tools for heat stress are available on the federal OSHA website under heat illness.
For more information, visit Oregon OSHA's heat stress topic page.
To protect yourself, make sure your worksite has drinking water and a clean way to dispense it.
To prevent heat illness:
There are two types of heat illness: heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion:
If not treated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
The symptoms of heat stroke:
Heat stroke can kill you.
If someone on your crew has symptoms:
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