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Heat Stress: OSHA Regulations

Employees exposed to long periods of extreme heat, such as agricultural and construction workers, may be at risk of heat stress (or heat illness) and related occupational injuries. Common illnesses related to heat stress include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rashes. Although there is a cost to providing adequate shade and other forms of relief to your workers, failure to do so not only hurts productivity but also can expose your company to liability. It is in the best interests of both your company and your workers to provide training and certain resources (such as drinking water and frequent breaks) toward the goal of preventing heat illness in the workplace.

Twenty-five states have adopted OSHA-approved plans for compliance with and enforcement of heat illness prevention plans. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in a lawsuit if workers become injured as a result of heat illness. While OSHA does not have specific regulations for indoor workplace temperatures, the agency recommends a temperature range between 68 and 76 degrees.

OSHA Heat Stress Compliance Guidelines

Check your state for specific guidelines for the prevention of heat illness, since some states have more stringent heat illness regulations than the federal OSHA guidelines. California, for example, has some of the country's strongest heat safety standards as implemented by Cal/OSHA. As of late 2010, California employers with employees working outside are required to provide shade to at least 25 percent of the workforce during a shift when temperatures reach 85 degrees. High-heat procedures are required when temperatures reach 95 degrees for the following industries: agriculture; construction; landscaping; oil and gas extraction and transportation of agricultural products, construction materials or other heavy cargo. High-heat procedures include access to shade, active observance for signs of heat illness and provision of adequate water.

Here are some general guidelines recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

1. Permit workers to drink water at liberty

  • At least one pint of water per hour (per worker) is recommended

2. Establish provisions for a work/rest regimen in order to limit exposure time to high temperatures

  • Provide shade or air conditioning and water during these breaks

3. Develop a heat stress program incorporating the following:

  • Training program about recognizing and reducing heat illness
  • Screening program to identify heat-related health conditions
  • Acclimation program for new and returning employees
  • Specific procedures to be followed for heat-related emergencies
  • Provisions allowing for the immediate administration of first aid to workers displaying symptoms of heat illness

Types of Heat Illness

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control identifies the following five main types of heat illness:

1. Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is considered the most serious heat-related illness, occurring when the body can no longer regulate its temperature. The body temperature quickly rises and the ability cool off by sweating often fails. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability in the absence of emergency treatment.

  • Symptoms: Hot, dry skin; hallucinations; chills; throbbing headache; high body temperature; confusion/dizziness; slurred speech
  • First Aid: Call 911 and notify supervisor; move affected worker to shaded area; take steps to cool the individual (spraying with water, fanning)

2. Heat Exhaustion

As a response to excessive loss of water and salt, the body may experience heat exhaustion. Those who are elderly or have high blood pressure are particularly vulnerable.

  • Symptoms: Heavy sweating; extreme weakness; dizziness/confusion; nausea; clammy skin; pale complexion; muscle cramps; slightly elevated body temperature; fast, shallow breathing
  • First Aid: Have worker rest in a cool or shaded area; give worker plenty of water and have them take a cool bath, if possible

3. Heat Syncope

Heat syncope is an episode of dizziness or fainting that can occur with prolonged standing or from suddenly standing from a sitting position. This can occur as a result of dehydration or a lack of acclimatization.

  • Symptoms: Light-headedness; dizziness; fainting
  • First Aid: Have affected worker sit in a cool place once they feel symptoms, in addition to slowly drinking water or a sports beverage

4. Heat Cramps

Heat cramps typically are a result of low salt levels in muscles as a result of excessive sweating. They also may be a symptom of heat exhaustion.

  • Symptoms: Muscle pain or spasms, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs
  • First Aid: Stop activity and sit in a cool place; drink clear juice or a sports beverage; abstain from strenuous work for a few hours; seek medical attention if the worker has heart problems or the cramps don't subside after one hour

5. Heat Rash

Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating.

  • Symptoms: Appears as a red cluster of pimples or small blisters; likely to occur on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases
  • First Aid: Keep worker in cooler, less humid environment; keep affected area(s) dry; use dusting powder, if available
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