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eSafety’s Heat-Related Illness series was developed to create a better understanding of the different types of heat-related illnesses. These illnesses are prevalent in the workplace year-round and can affect anyone working in a warm, humid environment both indoors and outdoors. This series will cover topics that include the different types of heat-related illnesses, signs and symptoms of these illnesses, and workplace prevention methods.  

Heat-related illnesses are a concern for many employers with hot, humid workplace conditions. In these conditions, employees are at risk for heat-related illnesses, which are serious and can be life-threatening. It’s important to remember that heat-related illnesses are preventable. With proper implementation of work safety, employee training and education, medical monitoring, and the use of heat-protective clothing and PPE, you can keep employees safe on the job and prevent heat-related illnesses in the workplace. 

Here are a few heat-related illness prevention tactics to implement to ensure you’re providing the safest work environment possible, and keeping employees cool even in the warmest work environments. 

Monitor Weather Conditions to Employ Appropriate Heat-Related Illness Prevention Tactics

Employees are at a greater risk for heat-related illnesses when they are working in hot, humid environments. It’s important to monitor weather conditions, and observe the heat index chart to guide appropriate work schedules for each day, for both indoor and outdoor employees. 

What is the Heat Index?

The heat index combines both air temperature and relative humidity into a single value that indicates how hot the weather will feel on a given day. The higher the heat index, the hotter the weather will feel both indoors and out, and the greater the risk for heat-related illnesses in employees. Observing the heat index can help determine the risk level for employees on any given day, and can help you determine what heat-related illness prevention methods should be used to protect employees. 

The heat index chart is separated into four categories: 

  • Caution: Less than 91° F
  • Extreme Caution: 91-103° F
  • Danger: 103-115° F
  • Extreme Danger: Greater than 115° F

Remember that your work environment can also affect the heat index. For example, strenuous work or the use of heavy protective clothing can add to the heat index value. Employees working in full sunlight will also experience greater heat levels than what the heat index may indicate. 

To prevent heat-related illnesses, pay close attention to daily weather, and assess the daily risks to determine what preventative measures should be taken. Even if the heat index is slightly below the caution level, you should encourage employees to take heat-related illness prevention methods like drinking water and taking frequent breaks. 

It’s important to remember that the same heat-related illness prevention tactics that apply to employees working in hot conditions outdoors apply to employees working indoors. Apply the following heat-related illness prevention tactics, like engineering controls, acclimatizing workers, encouraging proper hydration, establishing a work/rest schedule, encouraging communication and more to employees working in hot indoor environments, as well as to those working outdoors. 

Use Engineering Controls to Reduce Heat for Employees Working Indoors

As we mentioned earlier, employees are at risk for heat-related illnesses both indoors and outdoors. For employees working indoors, it’s equally important to monitor temperature and humidity. OSHA recommends employers maintain workplace temperatures in the range of 68-76°F with humidity in the range of 20 to 60 percent. 

In indoor workplaces where temperature and humidity may exceed the recommended range, engineering controls should be employed to prevent heat-related illnesses. Workplaces like bakeries, commercial kitchens, laundries, chemical plants, and more, can become exceptionally hot, and it’s up to the employer to implement engineering controls that can ensure employee safety.

 Some engineering controls that make the workplace cooler include: 

  • Increasing ventilation
  • Bringing in cooler outside air
  • Using air conditioning equipment
  • Shielding the employee from heat source

Acclimate Workers to Temperature

Most of the people who have died from heat stroke in the past few years were on their first days of the job or were working during a heat wave. It is imperative to acclimate new employees to hot work environments, both indoors and outdoors. This is one of the most important heat-related illness prevention methods because even employees who follow all other prevention techniques are at a high-risk for a heat-related illness if they have not been properly acclimatized to working in high-heat environments. 

Employee acclimation should follow these guidelines: 

  1. On the first day, new employees should be exposed to the hot work environment for only 20 percent of their work shift. 
  2. After the first day, it is permissible to increase exposure time by an additional 20 percent per day, until the employee is acclimated.
  3. New employees working in high heat or humidity should be closely monitored for the first 14 days of employment. 

For employees who are not new, the following acclimation guidelines apply: 

  • Employees who have recently worked in a hot environment.
    • Day 1: May be exposed for 50 percent of their work shift. 
    • Day 2: Increase exposure time to 60 percent. 
    • Day 3: Increase exposure time to 80 percent. 
    • Day 4: May be exposed to the hot work environment for 100 percent of the work shift. 
  • Employees who have been absent from the job for a week or more.
    • Are at an increased risk of heat-related illness. 
    • Should be gradually re-acclimated to the hot environment as you would a new employee.

In addition to properly acclimatizing employees to a hot or humid work environment, the following heat-related illness prevention methods should be employed in the workplace. 

Encourage employees to stay hydrated

Proper hydration is another key way to prevent heat-related illnesses in the workplace. Make sure water is available for employees working in hot conditions, and encourage short, frequent water breaks. Employees working in hot conditions for less than two hours should try to drink four cups of water per hour, in small but frequent amounts. 

For employees working in hot conditions for longer periods, sports drinks containing electrolytes can help replace the salt and minerals the body loses during prolonged sweating. If working outside, encourage employees to take their frequency breaks in a shaded area. If natural shade isn’t available, a temporary shading structure must be provided. 

Limit caffeine consumption

Caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee, soda, and more can lead to increased dehydration. Employees working in hot conditions should be aware of the effects of caffeine and encouraged to choose more hydrating options like water and sports drinks with electrolytes. 

Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing

If possible, employees should wear clothing that is appropriate for hot conditions. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing helps the body stay cool, and employees should be encouraged to wear comfortable, cool garments so long as workplace safety requirements allow. 

Wear PPE & body-cooling products

Even in hot conditions, employees must use proper PPE for the job. If required personal protective equipment is bulky and warm, it’s important to factor that in when determining what precautions to take for employees working in hot environments. 

Body-cooling products can be used to relieve heat stress. Garments like: 

  • Water and air-cooled garments
  • Ice-pack vests
  • Heat-reflective aprons
  • Cooling suits
  • Cooling hats
  • And more

All work to help keep employees cool and enable them to move freely. These products combine cooling, wicking fabrics with increased airflow and cold packs to keep an employee’s body temperature down in hot and humid environments. 

Though cooling products aren’t a permanent solution, when used in conjunction with other heat-illness prevention methods, like drinking plenty of water, wearing appropriate clothing, and taking breaks, they are effective. 

Establish a Work/Rest schedule

To prevent heat-related illnesses, it’s important to establish an effective work/rest schedule according to the environment and heat employees experience in the workplace. 

A work rest schedule gives the body a chance to cool off, slow down the heart rate, and recover from hot, sweaty work conditions. It’s important to note that a rest period doesn’t necessarily mean that workers are on break. A rest period could be light work like attending a meeting or completing paperwork, so long as that rest period is conducted in a cool, shaded spot. 

Work rest periods should adjust according to the heat index (see below for more information on the heat index). For example, a “caution” heat index day might call for a 1-hour work/rest cycle, where the rest period is just 15 minutes every hour. A danger or extreme danger index day might call for a 1-hour work/rest cycle where the rest period is 45 minutes of that hour. 

Encourage Communication

Workplace heat illness prevention relies on open, frequent communication between employees. Establishing a worker buddy system can help promote good communication. Taking water breaks in pairs or groups can also facilitate a routine time for employees to check in with each other. This type of regular, open communication can help ensure everyone is staying healthy and hydrated, especially in hot conditions. 

Heat-related illnesses are a risk for employees working in any hot environment, both indoors and outdoors. To protect your team, it is important to educate your employees about the different types of heat-related illnesses, as well as heat-related illness prevention methods so they can recognize the signs of these illnesses and take preventative methods to keep themselves healthy. 

For more information about heat-related illnesses and the prevention of heat-related illnesses in the workplace, consider eSafety’s course on Heat-Related Illness Awareness. To learn more about our courses contact our team online or request a free quote today!