Working in Extreme Heat: OSHA Enforces Heat Illness Prevention

By Randy Clayton on Jul 29, 2023
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Heat-related illness and incidents are the foremost cause of fatalities among all weather-induced phenomena, especially this past decade where working in extreme heat has become increasingly common. In fact, nine out of the past 10 years have seen unusually hot summer temperatures across the contiguous 48 states - some of the highest ever recorded.

As a result, the three-year average of workplace deaths caused by heat has doubled since the early 1990s, according to former United States Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. In fact, OSHA estimates workers suffer over 3,500 injuries and illnesses related to heat each year.

These more frequent and intense heat waves present a growing hazard for the millions of workers who are working in extreme heat and are expected to persist due to our climate's rising temperatures, further escalating the risk of increased cases of heat-related illnesses and death.

While agriculture and construction workers are particularly vulnerable to these heat-related risks, the issue spans across all heat-exposed labor sectors, including those working indoors without sufficient access to climate-controlled settings. 

Overexposure to and working in extreme heat can precipitate conditions like heat stroke, which, without appropriate treatment, can prove fatal. It further intensifies pre-existing health issues such as asthma, heart disease and kidney failure.

As a result, OSHA launched a targeted program last year to protect workers across the nation. Here’s what you need to know to protect your employees.

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OSHA National Emphasis Program on Outdoor & Indoor Heat Hazards 

On April 8, 2022, OSHA expanded its ongoing heat illness and heat-related illness prevention initiative and launched a National Emphasis Program (NEP) - Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards.

The goal of the NEP, according to OSHA, is to “encourage employers to intervene early to prevent illnesses and deaths among workers during high heat conditions, such as working outdoors in a local area experiencing a heat wave, as announced by the National Weather Service.” 

Early interventions include, but are not limited to, providing water, rest, shade, training and acclimatization procedures for new or returning employees.”

Under OSHA law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards, which include working in extreme heat. A range of heat illnesses – from cramps to potentially fatal heat stroke – can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition.

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OSHA Heat Illness NEP Highlights

The NEP, for the first time, has established a national enforcement strategy allowing OSHA to actively inspect workplaces for heat-related risks in general industries, maritime, construction or agricultural operations that are alleged to have hazardous exposure to heat, both outdoors and indoors.

Consequently, this equips OSHA with the authority to initiate heat-related inspections. Here are a few more highlights employers should be aware of, according to OSHA

  • The NEP establishes heat priority days when the heat index is expected to be 80°F or higher. On heat priority days: 
    • OSHA will initiate compliance assistance in the targeted high-risk industries.
    • OSHA will also continue to inspect any alleged heat-related fatality/catastrophe, complaint or referral regardless of whether the worksite falls within a targeted industry of this NEP.  

  • OSHA will conduct programmed (pre-planned) inspections in targeted high-risk industries on any day that the National Weather Service has announced a heat warning or advisory for the local area.  

  • OSHA also recognizes that many businesses want to do the right thing by developing heat illness prevention plans to keep their employees safe.
    • On heat priority days, OSHA field staff will engage in proactive outreach and technical/compliance assistance to help keep workers safe on the job.

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Working in Extreme Heat: How Heat Harms

Even though heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable, OSHA states that dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill each year while working in hot or humid conditions.

When the air temperature is close to or warmer than normal body temperature, which ranges from 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit in most people, it is difficult for the body to cool itself. Blood circulated to the skin retains heat, so sweating becomes the main way the body cools off. But sweating is effective only if the humidity level is low enough to allow evaporation, and if people replace the fluids and salts they lose.

A person’s core temperature and heart rate increase if the body cannot release excess heat. As the body continues to store heat, the person loses the ability to concentrate, has difficulty focusing, may become irritable or sick and often loses the desire to drink. Ultimately, fainting or even death can occur if the person is not cooled down immediately.

Exposure to heat also increases the risk of injuries due to such factors as sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness and burns from hot surfaces or steam.

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Protecting Employees Who Are Working in Extreme Heat from Heat Illness

Employers whose workers are working in extreme heat have a legal, moral and fiscal obligation to protect them. Take these steps to prevent heat stress and keep both workers and bottom lines healthy:

  • Provide water, rest and shade. OSHA encourages employers to provide cool, easily accessible drinking water (not beverages with caffeine, which are dehydrating), and encourage workers to drink about one cup every 15 minutes. Frequent breaks in shaded areas also should be mandatory for employees working in extreme heat.
  • Allow workers to acclimatize by gradually increasing the length of time they work over a two-week period so they can build a tolerance to the heat.
  • Schedule heavy work during the coolest time of the day, if possible.
  • Suggest workers wear lightweight, light-colored clothing.
  • Rotate employees when working in the heat is unavoidable.
  • Use air conditioning and ventilation to cool the indoor work environment.
  • Train staff to recognize the signs of heat-related illnesses and take care of people in distress.

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Know the Difference: Heat Stress, Heat Exhaustion & Heat Stroke

  • Heat Stress

Heat stress is a serious health concern that can occur when your body can't adequately cool itself, often as a result of prolonged exposure to excessive heat or physical exertion in high-temperature conditions. 

This stress can lead to conditions like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which if left untreated, can be life-threatening.

  • Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that can occur after you've been exposed to high temperatures combined with dehydration. 

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include: 

    • Heavy sweating 
    • Rapid pulse
    • Fatigue
    • Dizziness 
    • Nausea
    • Headache
    • Fainting

If not managed properly, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.

The primary first aid for heat exhaustion involves: 

    • Getting the person out of the heat and into a cooler place, preferably air-conditioned
    • Having them lie down, 
    • Loosening or removing clothing, applying cool, wet clothes to the body or taking a cool bath
    • Hydrating with sips of water or a sports drink rich in electrolytes if the person is conscious and able to swallow

If symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical attention immediately.

  • Heat Stroke

Heat stroke, on the other hand, is the most serious heat-related illness and is considered a medical emergency. It occurs when the body's temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body cannot cool down. This condition can cause death or permanent disability if not treated promptly. 

Symptoms of heat stroke may include: 

    • A high body temperature (above 103°F)
    • Hot, red, dry or damp skin 
    • A fast, strong pulse 
    • Headache 
    • Dizziness
    • Nausea 
    • Confusion 
    • Loss of consciousness 
    • Seizures

If you suspect someone has a heat stroke, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. While waiting for help, move the person to a cooler place, help lower their temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath, but do not give the person anything to drink. 

Heat stroke requires professional medical treatment and time is of the essence.

Remember that heat-related illnesses can be prevented with awareness, proper precautions and prompt action. Employers should reduce heat exposure and associated risks through air conditioning to cool indoor workspaces, and should implement work practices that require frequent breaks, drinking water often and providing an opportunity for workers to build up tolerance to working outdoors or indoors in extreme heat.

Know and watch for symptoms of heat-related illness during hot weather and plan what to do in an emergency. Quick action can save lives.

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Axcet Helps Small Businesses Keep Their Employees Safe & Remain Compliant

As the climate continues to heat up, proactive measures are more critical than ever to ensure the safety and well-being of employees across all sectors who are working in extreme heat. As your? dedicated risk management company, we stand ready to support your small business in navigating this evolving landscape, ensuring you remain compliant with the emerging regulations from OSHA. 

We are committed to providing resources and guidance to address heat-related hazards, fostering a safe and healthy work environment. Always remember, a well-prepared business is a resilient business. Unsure where to start or need a little guidance? Reach out to us today.

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Written by Randy Clayton

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