When you have a mild spring or summer, it’s easy to forget about heat stress. Managers will often pay attention solely to the forecast for the next week, see the temperatures are reasonable and not worry too much about taking heat safety precautions in an outdoor workplace environment.
If that sounds like your typical reaction, it’s a mistake and in some cases, a deadly one.
That’s because what you may not be taking into account is the heat index – what the temperature feels like to the body when combined with humidity of the air. Here’s the hidden danger: In situations where a worker might be exposed to direct sunlight, the heat index could be increased by up to 15 degrees higher. So a day with a heat index of less than 90 degrees may seem as if it only calls from some basic planning for heat protection, right? Now let’s say your people are working in direct sunlight under strenuous conditions where the heat index could feel as high as 105 degrees.
Suddenly, we’re talking about a risk level that quickly moves from a lower level of risk to a high-risk situation involving much greater awareness and precaution. It calls for having plenty of drinking water on hand to consume every 15 minutes or so and ensuring you have a full assortment of medical supplies on site.
When conditions shift quickly, managers need to shift just as quickly too by putting protective measures in place for the team. Here’s a game plan for you when things heat up:
#1 What’s The Heat Index For The Next 5 To 7 Days?
The chart below is from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which created the heat index system. There are four courses of action you can take based on the heat index and corresponding risk level.
(Source: NOAA Heat Index)
Low – Watch for fatigue among workers with significant exposure to the sun. Drinking water should be made available as well as medical services if necessary. Keep an eye on how much the temperature might change during the day so you aren’t caught off guard by a higher heat index later on.
Moderate – Heat stroke, heat cramps or heat exhaustion is a possibility here. Workers should be partaking in several cups of water each hour and breaks in a shaded area should also be scheduled. In addition, each worker should have another worker or supervisor closely watching them for heat-related issues.
High – Heat cramps or heat exhaustion is more likely and the risk of heat stroke increases more. With this being a very dangerous level of heat, consider the activities that could be rescheduled for another time or day when the heat index is more favorable. If this isn’t possible, make sure that workers are given several cups of water regularly throughout each hour and jobs are rotated frequently to keep physical exertion to a minimum.
Very High to Extreme – Heat stroke is very likely at this level. All work tasks should be rescheduled to another time when the heat index is lower. If certain activities absolutely must be done that day, look at the earliest part of the morning or evening shifts to better accommodate a cooler atmosphere.
No matter what level of heat index, even at the lowest level of caution, keep in mind that the body needs time to acclimate to heat and for most people, that adjustment can’t just happen in a day.
Consequently, as your people adjust to hotter conditions, the first few days will carry greater risk as body temperature and pulse rates are higher due to unfamiliar changes in the atmosphere. As the days go on, the body generally adjusts and work should become hopefully less strenuous as a result.
In other words, give your people ample time to get used to working in the heat. Expecting a worker to perform the same in the first hot day of the week compared to the fifth hot day of the week is probably far too much to ask right away. In fact, it may take up to two weeks for getting acclimated to the heat if not more, depending on the conditions.
#2: How Much Work Will Be Done In Direct Sunlight?
Again, if a good portion of the work is going to be done under direct sunlight, the feeling of intense heat among your workers could be even higher than the “official” heat index. So before you take the index at its face value, think about the actual conditions your workers will encounter and adjust.
#3 What Type Of Clothing Do Your Workers Have?
Forgetting about clothing can be a real oversight among managers when temperatures aren’t scorching. If any of your people wear heavy, non-breathable or impermeable chemical protective clothing, the risk of a heat-related problem is still very much present and among these individuals moving about in clothing that isn’t ideal for the heat, that risk may be even greater.
#4 Who’s New On The Job?
Every worker needs time to properly adjust for work in hotter conditions but your newest workers could be very vulnerable. Not only do they have to get acclimated to the climate but if they’re new to outdoor work, they could be in big trouble. An investigation from Cal/OSHA discovered that of 25 heat-related incidents in a certain year, 80% involved workers who had been on the job for four days or less. So make sure these newest workers ease into the job with frequent breaks and only so much strenuous work as they learn how to perform in outdoor conditions.
Precautions are important as the heat index rises, but the fact remains that heat-related illnesses can still happen even among your most experienced workers. So in a follow-up post, I’ll speak to the actions you can take to quickly address everything from heat stroke to heat exhaustion.
But let’s not stop there.
With Life Saving Training for your workers from SOS Technologies, you can better equip your environment with the knowledge to recognize heat-related problems and the understanding on how to act. Don’t put it off as the dog days of summer arrive. Make a call to SOS and get your training on the calendar now at888.705.6100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.