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OSHA Cranks Up Heat Safety Standards

11 June, 2024

Three workers stand in a foundry looking at a Caution: Heat Stress Hazard safety sign.

In compliance with the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), OSHA assembled an SBAR Panel on August 25, 2023. The Panel included members from the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration (SBA), OSHA, and the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The Panel conducted six videoconferences in September 2023 with Small Entity Representatives (SERs) potentially affected by the standard and subsequently issued a report.  

The report that came out of those meetings (available here) generally stated that most SERs agree that there should be a heat exposure guideline, rather than a standard, which includes provisions for recognizing heat-related hazards, training employees, and creating Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (HIIPPs).  

Why Worry About the Weather? 

Heat is the primary cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. It can exacerbate existing health conditions and lead to severe outcomes like heat stroke and death if not managed promptly. Workers in inadequately controlled outdoor and indoor environments face risks of hazardous heat exposure, exacerbated by heat-generating processes, machinery, and equipment lacking proper cooling measures.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): 

  • 33,890 work-related heat injuries and illnesses from 2011–2020, an average of 3,389 per year 
  • 999 deaths among U.S. workers from 1992–2021, an average of 33 per year 

*BLS believes these figures likely underestimate the impact due to the subjective nature of heat-related symptoms, their effects on decision-making, and inconsistent self-reported data. 

Impact on Workers 

The impact of heat-related illnesses extends beyond immediate health effects. Workers suffering from heat stress often experience decreased productivity, increased risk of accidents, and longer recovery times. Constant exposure can lead to long-term health issues, such as cardiovascular problems and chronic kidney disease. For employers, this turns into higher medical costs, increased absenteeism, and potential liability for workplace injuries.

Recognizing and Treating Heat-Related Illnesses 

As temperatures rise, so does the risk of heat-related illnesses, which can range from mild discomfort to life-threatening conditions. It's crucial for workers, especially those exposed to hot environments, to recognize the signs and symptoms of these illnesses and take appropriate action. Here's a comprehensive guide on how to identify and treat various heat-related conditions: 

Heat Stroke 

Heat stroke is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition resulting from the body's inability to regulate its temperature. It requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms include confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, hot, dry skin or profuse sweating, seizures, and high body temperature (above 106°F). 

First Aid: 

  1. Call 911: Seek emergency medical care immediately.
  2. Move to shade: Transfer the affected person to a shaded, cool area.
  3. Cool the body: Use cold water or ice baths, wet the skin, apply cold wet cloths, and circulate air around the person.

Heat stroke can lead to permanent disability or death if not treated promptly. Employers should have emergency plans in place and ensure all employees are trained to recognize and respond to signs of heat stroke. 

Heat Exhaustion 

Heat exhaustion occurs due to dehydration and electrolyte loss from excessive sweating, often in hot environments. It can produce symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, excessive thirst, heavy sweating, and elevated body temperature. 

First Aid: 

  1. Medical evaluation: Take the person to a clinic or emergency room.
  2. Remove from heat: Get them to a cooler area and offer fluids.
  3. Cooling measures: Apply cold compresses and encourage sips of water.

foundry workers are pictured in high heat environmentPreventing heat exhaustion involves ensuring workers stay hydrated and take frequent breaks in cooler environments. Employers should provide accessible drinking water and encourage regular breaks. 

Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) 

Rhabdo is a serious condition resulting from muscle breakdown due to heat stress and physical exertion. Symptoms include severe muscle pain/cramps, dark urine, weakness, and exercise intolerance 

First Aid: 

  1. Stop activity: Cease physical exertion.
  2. Hydrate: Drink water and seek immediate medical attention.

Rhabdo can lead to kidney damage if not treated promptly. Workers engaged in strenuous physical activities should be closely monitored for symptoms. 

Heat Rash 

Heat rash is a skin irritation due to excessive sweating. It shows up as red clusters of pimples or blisters. 

First Aid: 

  1. Cool environment: Work in a cooler area.
  2. Keep dry: Keep affected area dry and use powder for comfort.

Heat rash is generally less severe but can be uncomfortable. Ensuring a cool, dry working environment can prevent it. 

General Heat Safety Tips 

Currently, OSHA provides guidance on “Working in Outdoor and Indoor Heat Environments,” and it suggests that employers should: 

  1. Provide workers with water, rest, and shade.
  2. Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
  3. Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.
  4. Monitor workers for signs of illness.

Construction worker wiping brow in the sun

Workers can also protect themselves with some simple safety measures. 

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water, even if not thirsty. 
  • Take breaks: Rest in shaded or air-conditioned areas. 
  • Dress appropriately: Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. 
  • Know your limits: Avoid strenuous activities during peak heat hours. 

Prompt recognition and treatment of heat-related illnesses are essential for preventing serious complications. Stay informed and prioritize safety in hot working environments to protect yourself and your colleagues. 

DuraLabel Resources  

As we approach warmer temperatures it’s important for workers to not only limit their exposure to the heat but also understand and recognize the signs of someone who may be experiencing symptoms of heat illness. OSHA has been working on new heat standards designed to decrease the number of workers who have been injured or died while working in temperatures that were too warm.  

This new standard includes those who did not receive proper training on what to do in certain heat elements. The current pushback is whether what OSHA is trying to implement should be considered a standard or guideline employers should implement as an additional layer to worker safety.  

DuraLabel’s free OSHA Signage Instant Action Guide can help create OSHA/ANSI-compliant safety signs and custom labels with ease. Need help assessing your facility? This guide also includes a site inspection checklist.  

Read Next: 

Can you Take the Heat? 5 Tips to Reduce Heat Exposure  

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