For most people, Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of summer signal a time for vacation, barbecues and lounging on the beach. But for some, the summer heat can be deadly.
Workers in outdoor industries like agriculture, construction and transportation face serious hazards from working in the heat, including illness and death. With temperatures rising, now is the best time for employers to prepare to protect workers who will be performing duties outdoors.
In fact, thousands of employees become sick each year and many die from working in the heat. In 2012, there were 31 heat-related worker deaths and 4,120 heat-related worker illnesses. Labor-intensive activities in hot weather can raise body temperatures beyond the level that normally can be cooled by sweating. Heat illness initially may manifest as heat rash or heat cramps, but can quickly escalate to heat stroke if precautions aren’t taken.
That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced the start of our annual Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers this week, to educate workers and employers about the dangers of working in hot weather as well as provide resources and guidance to address these hazards.
It’s important to know that heat illness disproportionately affects those who have not built up a tolerance to heat (acclimatization), and it is especially dangerous for new and temporary workers. Acclimatization is a physical change that the body undergoes to build tolerance to heat, and it is a critical part of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities. If someone has not worked in hot weather for a week or more, their body needs time to adjust.
However, employers can protect workers from heat-related illness and death by following a few simple steps: including frequent water breaks, providing shade and allowing ample rest. They can also teach their employees the signs of heat illness and what do in an emergency.
More resources are available on OSHA’s website in English and Spanish: www.osha.gov/heat. There’s even an OSHA Heat App you can download that calculates the heat index (both temperature and humidity) where you are working and provides recommendations for how best to protect yourself based on the risk level. Since its launch, the app has been downloaded more than 130,000 times.
Additionally, OSHA is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to incorporate worker safety precautions when heat alerts are issued across the nation. NOAA, which today announced its own campaign to address extreme heat – Heat Awareness Day – will also include worker safety information on its heat watch web page.
If you have questions, call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742). It’s confidential. Or visit www.osha.gov to learn more about your rights and staying healthy in the workplace.
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.