Heat Safety for Outdoor Workers

By: Dr. David Gregg, chief medical officer at StayWell

We’re in the middle of the “dog days” of August, which typically bring very hot, sultry temperatures to many regions around the country. For those who work outside, unbearable temperatures not only make it challenging to get the job done but can also create a dangerous working environment.

Nearly half of all jobs today require at least some outdoor work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Excessive heat causes more than 650 deaths in the United States per year. Nearly 40 of those deaths happened on the job in 2016—double the number that occurred during the previous two years.

Construction workers make up about one-third of heat-related deaths. Others in industries that spend their day outdoors—landscapers, agricultural workers, firefighters, and athletes—are also at risk when the temperature rises. Personal factors, such as being overweight, having heart disease, or taking medications that don’t react well to extreme heat, can heighten these risks.

Most heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. It’s important for employers to help employees work safely by understanding the laws focused on jobs in the heat.

Know your responsibilities in protecting employees

All employers are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to provide employees with a workplace that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” This responsibility includes taking action to avoid heat-related hazards that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, whether working indoors or outdoors.

OSHA guidance for outdoor workers encourages employers to follow the heat index, provide sufficient shade and rest breaks, and ensure enough water is available. There is no federal law specific to heat-related work stress today, although Congress recently introduced a bill that would direct OSHA to create heat-related workplace regulations for the first time. Three states have passed heat-related labor standards. California and Washington have laws in place to protect employees who work outdoors, while Minnesota requires protections for indoor workers.

Heat safety tips to share with managers and employees

The majority of heat-related illnesses occur within the first few days of being on a job that carries risk of heat exposure. The CDC provides good guidance regarding warning signs and what to watch for when working in the heat. Ensure that your managers and employees are prepared to recognize these signs and properly handle issues when they occur.

How to recognize and care for heat-related injuries

As the CDC details, extended exposure to heat or the sun can cause problems of escalating severity. Sunburn is a familiar problem which most of us have experienced and know how to avoid. Heat cramps or muscle spasms are also familiar to outdoor workers, but require attention—reducing activity, moving to a cool place, drinking fluids, or seeking medical care.

Heat exhaustion is the next level of severity and it’s important to lower body temperature and seek medical care when indicated. Heat exhaustion warning signs include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramping
  • Sweaty skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness

Heat stroke is the highest level of severity and requires immediate medical care, which may include a 911 call. Heat stroke warning signs include:

  • Red, hot, or dry skin
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Convulsions
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

6 tips to stay safe when temperatures climb

Follow these guidelines to help protect employees from heat-related stress.

  • Gradually increase workloads and heat exposure: New workers or those returning from a long absence may take longer to get acclimated to an outdoor environment. Easing them in can lower their risk of heat-related stress.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate: Encourage workers to drink at least one cup of water every half hour. Mix in sport drinks on extremely hot days.
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen: Sunscreen not only helps prevent burns but skin cancer as well, which affects more than 5 million Americans every year. More than $100 million in productivity is lost annually because of restricted activity or absence due to skin cancer.
  • Use cool down periods: Find shaded areas when possible for cooling down. Or take breaks and seek out air-conditioned rest areas or buildings.
  • Provide proper equipment for the job: Give workers protective equipment—including hats, water-cooled garments, and heat-reflective clothing—to stay cooler. See OSHA’s job-specific PPE guidance for more information.
  • Pay close attention to the weather: Encourage supervisors and workers to download OSHA’s Heat Safety Tool app, which calculates heat index and includes recommendations for preventing heat illness. You might also consider shuffling schedules depending on work flexibility.