Preventing More Deaths During a National Heat Wave

With more than 110 million Americans exposed to excessive temperatures this week − heat indexes are expected to be above 90 degrees in almost all 48 continental states − the Occupational Safety and Health Administration urges employers to protect workers who may be exposed to extreme heat while working outdoors or in hot indoor environments.

It can be a matter of life and death.

Just this past Friday, a 23-year-old landscape employee working in direct sunlight near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, became overheated around 4 p.m. when the heat index was near 110 degrees. He had been chipping limbs, stacking brush and flagging traffic for hours that day. He was rushed to the hospital with a core body temperature of 108 degrees and died the following day from heat-related illness. July 22 was only his fourth day on the job.

What makes his death even more tragic is that it was entirely preventable. Heat-related deaths can be avoided if employers use commonsense precautions, and if they and their employees understand the warning signs of heat illness.

During this heat wave, OSHA urges employers to plan additional precautions to reduce the risks of heat exposure. Those steps include acclimating workers to the hot environments, providing frequent water breaks, allowing ample time to rest, and providing shade.

One of the most common problems identified in heat-related deaths and illness of workers is the lack of an employer-run heat prevention and acclimatization program. Steps to prevent heat illness include:

  • Drinking water every 15 minutes, even if you are not thirsty.
  • Resting in the shade to cool down.
  • Wearing a hat and light-colored clothing.
  • Learning the signs of heat illness and what to do in an emergency.
  • Keeping an eye on fellow workers.
  • Getting used to heat with an “easy does it” approach on the first days of work during hot spells.

 

Some people assume that a worker is not at risk for heat stroke if they are still sweating. This is not true. You can be sweating and still have heat stroke. A common symptom of heat stroke is mental changes, such as confusion or irritability. Heat stroke is an emergency. Employees should know to call 911 and alert a supervisor as quickly as possible if there is any suggestion of heat stroke.

To learn more about the symptoms of heat stress see OSHA’s Heat Stress Quick Card. The risk of heat stress increases for workers 65 and older, for those who are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure or take medications.

Also remember that working in full sunlight, as the Missouri landscaper was doing, can increase heat index values by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. So that means if the temperature is 95 degrees, it will feel like 110 in direct sunlight. Employers and workers can track the heat index at their work site using OSHA’s free Heat Safety Tool app, available for iPhone and Android devices.

Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Prevention Website.

Source: US Department of Labor