Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

May 10, 2014

If exposure to hot environments prevents workers’ bodies from maintaining a normal temperature, heat-related illnesses can occur and may result in death. OSHA does not have a standard relating to the hazard of heat, but it regulates heat exposure in the workplace under the General Duty Clause (Section 5(a)(1). Heat is a recognized hazard to human safety and health.

Following are some health problems that can result from hot work environments, as outlined by OSHA.

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related health problem. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulation fails and body temperature rises to critical levels of more than 104°F. This is a medical emergency that can result in death. The signs of heat stroke are confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. If a worker shows signs of heat stroke, get medical help immediately and call 911.

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Heat exhaustion is the next most serious heat-related health problem. The signs and symptoms are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating, and a body temperature of more than 100.4°F. Workers with heat exhaustion should be removed from the hot area and given liquids to drink. Remove unnecessary clothing including shoes and socks. Cool the worker with cold compresses to the head, neck, and face. Workers with signs of heat exhaustion should be taken to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and treatment.

Heat cramps are muscle pains usually caused by physical labor in a hot work environment. Heat cramps are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Workers with heat cramps should replace fluid loss by drinking water or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement liquids (sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes.

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Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments. Heat rash is caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. Heat rash usually appears on the neck, upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases. The rash area should be kept dry. Powder may be applied to ease the discomfort, but ointments and creams should not be used on heat rash, according to OSHA.

OSHA requires that employers evaluate whether a heat hazard exists by measuring the temperature and humidity conditions in the workplace. If a heat hazard exists, employers must develop means and methods to protect employees, says Mark Lies, a labor and employment law attorney and partner with the firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Chicago. Protections from heat range from changes in work practices such as rest breaks and job rotation to personal protective equipment (cooling vests) to engineering controls such as ventilation and cooling rooms. Employers who fail to take such steps are subject to citations and monetary penalties, Lies says.

Heat-related illness can temporarily diminish an employee’s mental capacity and physical coordination. Excessive heat can cause employees to lose focus or muscle control-and this is a particularly acute problem when operating machinery.

OSHA requires there to be adequate first aid assistance to provide emergency medical assistance to heat stricken employees. The assistance must either be provided by the employer or reasonably available from third party responders such as EMTs or the fire department within three to five minutes after the emergency occurs.

“The likelihood of OSHA enforcement in this area is very high,” says Lies. “OSHA has continued to conduct inspections and has issued citations and/or notices of alleged hazards to employers in both the manufacturing and outdoor landscaping industries. And OSHA has announced its intent to extend its influence into construction, road repair and demolition. It is imperative that employers take immediate steps to address the potential hazards posed by heat exposure.”

California has promulgated a regulation for Heat Illness Prevention (T8 CCR 3395), and it contains extensive requirements to protect employees who may be exposed to the hazard of heat illness. Federal OSHA has also looked to the California OSHA heat illness standard as a framework for general duty clause enforcement. Indeed, OSHA has announced its intention to carry out a nationwide campaign to prevent heat illness, injury, and death. Therefore, employers outside California should consider and implement, to the extent feasible, the requirements of the California standard.

The California regulation includes requirements for the following:

  • Potable drinking water, at least one quart per hour per employee for drinking for the entire shift
  • Access to shade at all times if an employee is suffering from heat illness or believes that a period of preventive recovery is needed
  • Extensive requirements for training of supervisory and nonsupervisory employees on the hazards of heat illness, reporting illness to the employers, and signs and symptoms of heat illness
  • Provision of emergency medical services
  • Specific training for supervisors regarding procedures the supervisor must follow when an employee exhibits symptoms of heat illness, including emergency response

Criminal Liability
An employer faces criminal liability for failing to protect employees against heat hazards. In Illinois, an employer was criminally prosecuted because employees were exposed to high levels of heat resulting in injury. In People v. Chicago Magnet Wire Corp., the Illinois Supreme Court held that a corporation and its officers and agents could be indicted for aggravated battery and reckless conduct for exposing employees to inadequate ventilation and dangerously overheated working conditions. In this case, employees were using steam and chemicals to clean electric motors. Temperatures in the plant reached 140°F. and workers became nauseated and ill from the exposure.

If an employee sustains a heat-related illness, the employer will face a worker’s compensation liability. Lies says the gravity of the claim may be substantially increased if the employee is overcome while operating machinery and sustains additional injury by falling into or off of equipment.

In order to prevent heat illnesses, says Lies, an employer should develop a program that includes the following elements:

  • Hazard identification-identify potential heat hazards in certain job functions, use of certain equipment, etc. Employees should be consulted in this process.
  • Hazard correction-correct or reduce the heat hazards identified.
  • Employee training-should encompass a description of various types of heat illness, information on how heat illness occurs and how to recognize common symptoms and signs of heat illness.
  • Employees should be informed that they have a duty to report promptly to a supervisor if the employee or a co-worker experiences the signs and symptoms of heat illness.
  • The training must be documented and provided in the employee’s native language.
  • In indoor environments, where feasible, implement an acclimatization program that gradually increases employees’ exposure to heat over time.
  • Supervisors should be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness and know how to respond. Supervisors must be able to explain the employer’s program and how to implement it. Supervisors should be trained in first aid and know how to provide readily available first aid services. In outdoor environments, consider where and how fresh cool water and shade or air conditioning is available in the event an employee exhibits signs of heat illness.
If the employer follows the above recommendations, it will substantially reduce the potential for heat-related illness by employees as well as potential legal liabilities associated with heat illness.