Every business wants to create a working environment that enables its workers to maximize their efficiency. But it’s also true that many businesses know far too little about training management that properly deals with one of the most common work place hazards: heat stress.
Heat Stress: Definition & Prevention
Heat stress is defined as a group of conditions that result from overexposure to and/or overexertion in excessive ambient temperatures. Although heat stress can affect any worker, the most at risk are those who work outdoors (e.g. farmers, firefighters, etc.) or indoors in extremely hot environments (e.g. bakeries, boiler rooms, etc.) — especially if the job requires them to wear heavy equipment or special protective gear.
Tragically, in many instances, an employee must collapse during work before management takes heat stress seriously. Yet, as far as occupational hazards go, heat stress is relatively easy enough to prevent. Furthermore, the General Duty Clause of the United States Occupational Safety and Health Act (section 5(a) (1)) directs that employers must “furnish to each of his employees a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees.”
Heat Stress Training Tips
Regardless of the type of industry in which it operates, a business should take steps to prevent heat stress occurring or affecting employees. Indeed, brief exposure to extreme heat — or prolonged exposure to moderate heat — can cause workplace injuries and lead to lawsuits. That’s why setting up effective training procedures to deal with heat stress not only protects employees, but helps safeguard a business’s bottom line as well. Here are four heat stress training tips:
- Heat Stress Education: Employers should place a placard or sign in each work area, which explains how to recognize and care for heat related illnesses (e.g. heat stroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat-induced fainting). OSHA has an official information card which can be downloaded and printed at no cost. The CDC also has an excellent info sheet you can download as well.
- Heat Stress Risk Assessment: Wherever there is slightest risk of heat stress, a formal risk assessment should be conducted. This includes (a) identifying hazards such as temperature, humidity, airflow and the proximity of the worker to heat sources; (b) identifying employees most susceptible to heat stress, such as those over the age of 65 or in poor health; (c) examining work clothing and any special gear/devices they need to carry such as respirators; (d) identifying proper precautions to preventing heat related illnesses, such as implementing and rehearsing emergency procedures.
- Heat Stress Measurement: The standard unit of measurement to assess heat stress is known as the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), and it was designed in response to a need for a reliable way to measure heat stress. The WBGT looks at the exchange of heat between a person and their environment by combining the parameters of the natural wet bulb temperature (tnw) and the globe temperature (tg), and sometimes the air temperature together into a single (although complex) calculated value. The importance of this measurement to the safety of workers cannot be overstated so any heat stress monitoring device used should be both ultra-reliable and in accordance with OSHA standards. Since this equipment is so specialized, purchasing it is not typically cost effective. However, be sure that any unit you rent has been annually calibrated by an accredited lab to ensure accuracy.
- Create a Work/Rest Regime: Once employers have assessed where their employees might suffer from heat stress, they need to implement procedures to protect workers. Obviously, every workplace is different, and therefore requires different procedures. However, generally speaking, a practical Work Rest Regime (WRR) should be enacted, which reflects the specific levels of WBGT. This is accomplished via a heat stress survey to determine how long a worker can continue before resting (and how long the rest should be). It also determines whether or not work patterns should be changed, or if modifying processes or the use of mechanical devices to reduce work rates should be implemented. Also, workers susceptible to heat stress must be provided with cool areas to rest in, and encouraged to drink plenty of fluids (preferably water) before their next shift begins.
Heat Stress Policies and Management
Supervisors must be trained in heat stress management. This includes the ability to detect the first signs of heat stress in their subordinates, as well as monitoring their compliance with replacing fluids by drinking enough water before the worker becomes thirsty (approximately 8 ounces of fluids for every 15-20 minutes of labor).
Supervisors should also be able to recognize the signs of dehydration, fainting, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke before they happen and, when necessary, allow workers to stop working if they become uncomfortable from the heat.
In addition, a safety manager or employer tasked with creating an accident-free workplace may want to explore reputable health and safety training facilities. Courses are widely available to enhance knowledge of equipment, applications and regulations concerning heat stress and other workplace dangers. Another option is to enlist the help of a licensed Industrial Hygienist to visit a workplace/facility, and develop proper safety guidelines and protocols.
Proper training and enforcing company policies that protect workers from heat stress will improve productivity, and reduce accidents in the workplace. Supervisors must resist management’s natural inclination to “get the job done at any cost” when it comes to implementing and maintaining effective heat stress training procedures.
It should also be noted that the greater the level of heat stress, the more likely it is that dangerous events can occur — to say nothing of the reduction in a worker’s cognitive function, attention span, and visual motor tracking, which at best leads to lower productivity, and at worst, can trigger mistakes with tragic consequences.