At Envirocon, safety is our first priority every day of the year. And as the seasons change, so do the hazards that our workers encounter. The 2018 summer has brought record-breaking heat across the country, making heat stress a major risk while working outdoors.
Exposure to heat can cause heat cramps, heat rashes, heat exhaustion, and at worst, heat stroke, which can result in death. According to OSHA, extreme heat exposure is the leading cause of death among weather-related hazards, prompting more than 65,000 emergency room visits annually. In 2015, exposure to environmental heat led to 37 work-related deaths. Of those fatal work injuries, 33 occurred in the summer months of June through September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Any worker exposed to hot and humid conditions is at risk of heat illness, especially those doing heavy work tasks or using bulky protective clothing and equipment. Some workers might be at a greater risk than others if they have not built up a heat tolerance to hot conditions, including new workers, temporary workers, or those not acclimated to working in high temperatures.
One system used to monitor the working environment for heat stress is the WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) measurement. The WBGT is a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover. There are 5 WBGT categories with their indexes ranging from 77 through 88.
Bryon Andres is the Health and Safety Supervisor at an Envirocon project site in Aiken, SC, where there is a potential for heat stress from March through October. During the summer months, he says his project will have days that hit Category 5 (>88 or above) WBGT three to four times a week on average. Since working in direct sunlight at this category will stress the body quickly for those not acclimated to this type of environment, precautionary actions must be implemented to prevent heat related illnesses.
Water, Rest, Shade is an OSHA campaign to keep workers safe in the heat. These three components are crucial to avoiding heat stress, but Andres points out that the buddy system and being fit-for-duty are also important.
“You have to look out for the guy next to you. And you have to be putting nutrients in your body – not just water. If you come in to work not up to par and then work outdoors in high temperatures, you put yourself at a higher risk of heat stress.”
At Andres’s project site, workers are taught what each of the five WBGT categories mean and the precautionary measures necessary while in that category. Then during the Plan of the Day meetings, heat stress is discussed again.
“There’s a check mark on our Plan of the Day form that serves a reminder: ‘Hey! Don’t forget it’s going to be hot today. Make sure you’re drinking water and eating.’,” Andres said. “I keep ravioli, crackers, and other snacks with me, and if someone doesn’t have anything to eat, I’ll share my lunch. That’s part of the buddy system.”
OSHA advises employers to have an emergency plan in place that specifies what to do if a worker has signs of heat-related illness and ensure medical services are readily available. Additional recommendations include:
- Help workers become acclimatized and gradually increase their workload.
- Have fresh drinking water readily available.
- Incorporate work/rest cycles and job rotation to reduce heat exposure.
- Schedule the most physically demanding work during cooler times of the day.
NIOSH and OSHA also collaborated on a heat safety mobile app that measures heat index values and provides projected heat indices throughout the workday. The app is available for download on Apple and Android devices.