As the calendar turns to June and temperatures across North America start to climb, millions of U.S. workers face increasing risk of heat stress in the workplace. Warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing plants, and transload facilities often lack good climate control. In buildings without air conditioning, temperatures can easily top 100 degrees with high humidity—conditions that raise the risk of heat stroke and heat fatigue for those working inside. In addition to the safety risks, heat exposure has economic implications: Overall productivity can suffer when workers are stressed by high temperatures.
In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, is the regulatory agency charged with safeguarding workers and monitoring the conditions in which they labor.
To learn more about how rising temperatures can affect the health and productivity of workers, we turned to Pamela Barclay, a health scientist with the Directorate of Standards and Guidance at OSHA. She focuses on safety and health programs at the agency and coordinates the Safe + Sound and Heat Illness Prevention campaigns.
Barclay graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master of Public Health degree in environmental health and risk analysis, and a Master of Science degree in behavior, education, and communication.
Q: Why are summer months more dangerous for workers in industrial settings?
A: It does not have to be extremely hot for a worker to develop heat illness. Performing physical labor in a warm environment can be enough to trigger heat illness. Heat exposure can happen indoors (in manufacturing plants, restaurants, bakeries, etc.) or outdoors (in agriculture, construction, and the like) and can occur during any season if the conditions are right, not only during heat waves.
A number of factors can contribute to heat stress in workers. They include high temperature and high relative humidity, which makes it difficult for the body to cool itself through sweating; radiant heat from sunlight; artificial heat sources such as furnaces; and poor air circulation. Some job-related risk factors include strenuous physical activity and heavy or non-breathable work clothes that reduce the body’s ability to dissipate excess heat.
Q: Why is it important to pay special attention to new and returning workers?
A: Research suggests that almost half of heat-related deaths occur on the worker’s first day on the job. While heat exposure can put any worker at risk, it’s important for employers to acclimatize new and returning workers to allow them to adjust to working in the heat. This can be done by gradually increasing workloads and allowing workers to take more frequent breaks during the first week as they build their tolerance.
Q: What are some of the signs that a person is being affected by heat stress?
A: Employers and workers should become familiar with the symptoms of heat illness. These symptoms include (but are not limited to) headaches, nausea, heavy sweating, hot dry skin, elevated body temperature, thirst, and decreased urine output. It’s especially critical that they be trained to recognize symptoms that indicate a medical emergency. These include abnormal thinking or behavior, slurred speech, seizures, and loss of consciousness.
Do not try to diagnose what type of heat illness is occurring (heat exhaustion, heat stroke, etc.). Diagnosing types of heat illness is often difficult because symptoms of multiple heat-related illnesses can occur together. Time is of the essence. These conditions can worsen quickly and result in fatalities. Cool the worker and call 911.
Q: You mention cooling the worker. What actions should be taken if heat illness is suspected?
A: When heat illness symptoms are present, employers and co-workers should promptly provide first aid. This includes actions like taking the worker to a cooler area, either with A/C or in the shade; immersing the worker in cold water or an ice bath; removing outer layers of clothing, especially heavy protective clothing; placing ice or cold wet towels on the head, neck, trunk, armpits, and groin; and using fans to circulate air around the worker.
Workers showing any signs of heat illness should never be left alone. When in doubt, call 911.
Q: What should employers do to mitigate the risk of heat stress within their facilities?
A: Under the OSH Act [the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970—the law that created OSHA], employers are responsible for protecting workers from known hazards, including heat. To mitigate the risk of hazardous heat, employers should plan ahead.
At a minimum, employers should have protocols in place to ensure the availability of water, rest breaks, and shade. This means providing cool drinking water, scheduling rest breaks, and providing a shaded or cool area for workers to recover from the heat when they take those breaks.
Q: You mentioned planning ahead. What should this entail?
A: Establishing a heat injury and illness prevention plan is vital to keeping workers safe. When developing a plan, there are various elements that employers should consider. These include determining who will provide insight on a daily basis, identifying steps [for acclimating] new and returning workers so they will gradually develop heat tolerance, and [developing strategies for protecting] people at the worksite who may be at increased risk.
Employers should also ensure that their protocols for responding to heat illness are effective. This should include implementing the appropriate controls to reduce heat exposure, outlining how to respond to a heat advisory or heat warning in the area, and having daily on-site monitoring of environmental conditions and signs of heat illness regardless of job shift.
Workers should also be trained to recognize the risks and signs of heat illness. This training is key to prevention and should underscore the importance of water, rest, shade, and first aid for heat illness.
Q: What can workers themselves do to minimize their risk of developing heat illness?
A: Heat illnesses can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. However, some workers may handle heat stress less effectively than others. There are many factors that have a role in creating a heat-stress risk to workers. These include health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. They also include physical characteristics, such as age, level of physical fitness, pregnancy, and how acclimatized an individual is to the heat.
In addition, some medications, like diuretics, may make workers more susceptible to heat illness. Furthermore, certain health behaviors such as low water intake and the use of alcohol or illicit drugs—like opioids, methamphetamine, and cocaine—are risk factors for heat illness. When in doubt, workers should talk to their health-care provider about whether they can work safely in the heat.
Employers should recognize that not all workers tolerate heat the same way. When heat hazards are present, workers should receive training from their employers about personal factors that can make them more susceptible to heat-related illness, and employers should enact workplace controls that focus on making jobs safe for all of their workers.
Q: Are there OSHA regulations that cover workplace heat stress that companies should be aware of?
A: Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety and health hazards. In October 2021, OSHA published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings. The ANPRM announced that OSHA is initiating the rulemaking process to consider a heat-specific workplace standard.
The next step in the rulemaking process will be to convene a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel, in accordance with the requirements of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), to hear comments from small-entity representatives on the impacts of any heat-specific standard. Updates on the rulemaking process will be provided on OSHA’s heat rulemaking web page.
Some states have also promulgated their own standards covering heat stress. Currently, these states are California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington. These regulations vary, so we encourage employers in these states to review their state’s regulation and reach out to their state or OSHA Region to ensure they are meeting the requirements for their respective standard.
Q: What are the penalties for failure to comply with OSHA regulations for assuring a safe work environment?
Q: How can employers stay up to date on OSHA’s occupational heat hazard-related efforts?
A: Check out OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention Campaign for resources that can help! Sign up for the monthly e-newsletter, “The Heat Source,” to stay up to date on new materials and ways to prevent heat illness at work. Your readers can find this information and more on OSHA’s website.
Our newest opportunity for stakeholders to engage is by participating in OSHA’s “Beat the Heat” contest, which is designed to raise awareness about the hazards of heat exposure in indoor and outdoor workplaces. The contest is open to stakeholders (businesses, unions, educational institutions, government entities, and individuals) nationwide. Participants must create an awareness tool, such as an infographic, training curriculum, poster, or logo, for workplaces to increase heat hazard recognition among employers and workers. The contest is open now! To learn more about the competition, visit the OSHA website. The deadline for entries is June 9.