Here in Washington, today is the peak of our first big heat wave of the summer – and it’s only summer’s first day. The National Weather Service alert warns of hot, dry conditions for everyone from Virginia to Maine, with extreme temperatures also visiting the Desert Southwest. The heat index here is expected to reach nearly 108 F.
I can tell you it’s one of those days that I’m grateful to be working indoors.
Workers who are outside – construction workers, farmworkers, landscapers, roofers, baggage handlers, and others – are facing some brutal conditions out there, conditions that can do far more damage than just make us uncomfortable. High heat can cause body temperature to rise to dangerous levels if precautions are not taken. Heat illnesses range from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke can result in death. I want to make sure that everyone understands the basic precautions necessary to keep from getting sick or worse.
Today, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis joined me and Acting Deputy Director of the National Weather Service Steven Cooper on a call with meteorologists and weather broadcasters to ask them to help us save workers’ lives by warning them of the hazards of extreme heat on the job when weather like today’s hits. We also want to expand the public’s awareness of the groups who are at higher risk in a heat wave like this. During heat waves we worry about the elderly, people who live alone, the homeless, and others. It’s time to make outdoor workers a part of that group.
It’s especially urgent that we protect workers during these first sweltering days of the season. The body acclimatizes to heat over time, and the risks are higher before that occurs. Workers who are starting new outdoor jobs or workers who aren’t used to this kind of heat are at higher risk for heat illnesses.
Workers have a right to a safe workplace, whether it’s indoors or out. If you are working outside on a day like today, that means three simple things: Water. Rest. Shade.
If you’re an employer of outdoor workers, I urge you to take today’s heat warnings very seriously and understand that you have a responsibility to keep workers safe. That means providing workers regular access to water so they can stay hydrated. It means scheduling regular break periods in the shade or indoors. It means training workers on the signs of heat illness—and what to do if they see a co-worker showing signs of dehydration or heat stroke.
OSHA has created a Heat Safety Tool for smartphones on the Apple and Android platforms that can calculate the heat index in your location and deliver site-specific information about your risks, and it can tell you what steps to take to keep cool.
It’s hot out there – no doubt about it – and the outlook for the summer is that it’s only going to get worse. I’m appealing directly to everyone who works outdoors or who employs outdoor workers to take simple steps to stay safe on the job today.
Drink water, even if you aren’t thirsty.
Become familiar with the symptoms of heat illness.
Look out for each other.
Call 9-1-1 if someone appears to be getting sick from the heat.
I don’t want to lose anyone today. I want everyone to make it home tonight to a cool room, the relief of the evening breeze, and a tall glass of water.
Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health