Protecting your employees from harm during conditions of extreme heat isn't just a recommended practice; it's the law.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) doesn't have a specific provision about heat stress, the Occupational Safety and Health Act's General Duty Clause does require employers to "furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees." OSHA has reportedly used this clause in the past to go after employers that have exposed their workers to potential harm from excessively hot work environments.
In addition, at least 24 states have OSHA-approved state plans with their own heat safety standards and enforcement policies.
Outdoor workers (e.g., construction workers, roofers, highway repair workers, farm workers) are the most obvious at-risk group during sweltering summer days. However, heat stress illnesses and injuries are also all too common in indoor workplaces, such as factories and manufacturing plants, foundries, laundries, restaurant kitchens, and boiler rooms. OSHA's guidelines for protecting workers in these environments include:
- Permitting workers to drink water at liberty — as much as a quart per worker per hour may be needed.
- Creating a work/rest cycle that reduces exposure time to high temperatures and/or decreases the required work rate.
- Thoroughly training workers and supervisors about the effects of heat stress and how to recognize and treat symptoms of heat-related illness. Print out and distribute OSHA's Heat Stress Card (www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3154.html) to all workers; a Spanish-language version is also available.
Jan Elovitz Cothron, Manager of Health Compliance, Tennessee OSHA, has found that one of the greatest challenges in training an employer's workforce (including supervisors) in heat safety is timeliness. "Oftentimes, the training is not given during critical periods of extremely high heat. The symptoms of heat stress can go undetected by the employee if timely awareness training is not given."
If some workers aren't regularly taking all recommended precautions, you must "make sure all workers are retrained and reminded of the precautions during periods of high heat," said Elovitz Cothron. "Don’t underestimate the effectiveness and value of frequent rest breaks and ample and frequent intake of fluids. HR professionals/managers should provide specific, detailed instructions on preventive measures and make sure that adequate protection, as recommended by OSHA or other experts, is readily available to their employees."
- Providing a five-day acclimatization period to new employees and workers returning from an absence of two weeks or more. This period should begin with 50% of the normal workload and time exposure on the first day, and gradually build up to 100% by the fifth day. "Many times, employees may be relocated from other parts of the country and may not be acclimated to the local environment, therefore making them more vulnerable to the effects of the heat and especially the humidity," said Elovitz Cothron.
HEAT WAVES AFFECT ALL
During heat waves, all bets are off; even white-collar office workers may be badly affected by the sudden and extreme heat and humidity, since their bodies have not had the five to seven days generally needed to acclimate to the conditions. Urban areas can be particularly hazardous during heat waves, as their asphalt, concrete, and metal infrastructure will trap the heat, humidity, and pollutants. Follow these guidelines during heat waves:
- Maintain effective air conditioning and/or distribute individual cooling devices, such as electric fans. If necessary, move desks away from the windows or install window shades to block the sun.
- Relax the dress code temporarily, so employees can wear light, well-ventilated, loose-fitting attire that's still office-appropriate.
- Allow flexible work schedules. This way, employees can avoid the rush-hour commute, which can be particularly unbearable for those using public transportation.
"Be pro-active," advised Elovitz Cothron. "Don't wait until employees are experiencing symptoms. Establish your own site-specific instructions based on the recommendations available from OSHA and other experts at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/index.html."
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