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Employers Must Protect Workers In Heat

The scorching heat of Texas summer has arrived, and with it, the real possibility of illness or death caused by heat. According to The Weather Channel, the southeast Texas area will reach triple digits in only the middle of June, earlier than seasonal averages. With rising temperatures into the 100s comes the increase of fatalities from sudden heat exposure.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that employers must protect workers from heat exposure. Under the OSH Act, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety and health hazards. This includes protecting workers from heat-related hazards.

“Heat illness can contribute to decreased performance, lost productivity due to illness and hospitalization, and possibly death,” according to the OSHA website.

Most outdoor fatalities (50-70%) occur in the first few days of working in hot environments because the body must become tolerant of the heat (gradually). The process of building a tolerance to the heat is called heat acclimatization.

Occupational risk factors for heat illness include:

  1. Heavy physical activity in warm or hot environments.
  2. Lack of acclimatization.
  3. Wearing clothing that traps heat and doesn’t “breathe”.

There are ways to help keep workers safe in the extreme heat.

First, drink one cup of water every 15 minutes even if you aren't thirsty and take frequent breaks. Be sure to have an emergency plan in place should workers show signs of heat-related illness. In addition, train workers on heat hazards. Lastly, build heat tolerance by slowly increasing the amount of time in the heat.

Management must consider all factors that contribute to body temperature increase when determining if a heat hazard is present in a workplace.

If workers are unable to cool themselves quickly enough, their internal body temperatures will continue to rise and they may experience symptoms such as thirst, irritability, rash, cramping, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness. Workers suffering from heat stroke experience mental dysfunction such as unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation, or slurred speech. Immediately call 911 if symptoms of a heat stroke are present!

Additional heat-related information can be found on the OSHA website at https://www.osha.gov/heat-exposure.