Be vigilant to prevent heat-related illnesses, injuries. Exposure to fresh air and sunlight, as well as not being confined to an office, are a few of the perks many outdoor workers enjoy. But with the good comes the bad, which includes oppressive temperatures during the summer months, when heat-related illnesses and injuries – even deaths – are a heightened concern.
For workers in the waste removal and recycling industry, being outdoors year-round and coping with extreme temperatures and weather are part of the job.
“No one really faults any trash company for not getting their trash picked up when there’s 6 inches of snow,” said Kirk Sander, vice president of safety and standards at the Arlington, VA-based National Waste and Recycling Association. “If it’s 105 degrees and humid, you also have to have the same understanding that we can’t push [our] bodies that hard.”
Nearly half of all jobs required working outdoors in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And, from 1992 to 2016, heat stress resulted in 783 worker deaths and caused nearly 70,000 serious injuries.
Although OSHA doesn’t have a heat stress standard, experts interviewed by Safety+Health recommend that employers have a prevention plan in place and provide a written emergency plan onsite. A prevention plan should include proper training and encourage workers to drink plenty of water, take periodic rest breaks and seek shade when temperatures rise. Meanwhile, employers and co-workers should keep a watchful eye for signs of heat stress.
Feeling the heat
Because of the nature of the work, agriculture, landscaping and construction are among the most common industries in which heat-related injuries and illnesses occur, said David Hornung, heat and agriculture program coordinator for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health – also known as Cal/OSHA.
The agency oversees the Central Valley – a 20,000-square-mile agricultural region that stretches 450 miles through the geographical center of the state – and the people who work there. “They do very intense outdoor work, often in very hot conditions,” Hornung said. “It’s very difficult manual labor.”
Outdoor labor, according to federal OSHA, can lead to ailments ranging from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heatstroke, which is considered a medical emergency.
“The harder you work, the more metabolic heat you generate,” Hornung said. “That increases your risk of heat illness. Workers have to self-monitor their water consumption, how they’re feeling. They can also watch out for one another and see if their buddies are getting signs or symptoms of heat illness and encourage them to take cool-down rests.”
Workers and employers can benefit from knowing the warning signs and symptoms of heat illnesses, as well as having prevention and emergency response plans in place.
“It’s not like you just provide them water and that solves the problem,” Hornung said. “It starts with an effective plan. The four main components we stress are shade, water, emergency procedures and training (known as SWET).”
Why acclimatization matters
Even before the calendar turns to July and August, workers who let their guard down may be at increased risk.
“One thing we’ve noticed with heat exhaustion is that some cases occur as early as April,” said Edward Taylor, executive director of the Construction Industry Research and Policy Center at the University of Tennessee. “The most cases seem to occur in May, before the worker is getting acclimated.”
Additionally, workers new to a job may be at greater risk of fatal heat exposure.
In 2016, OSHA reviewed the agency’s 84 heat enforcement cases from 2012 and 2013. It found that 17 of the 23 workers who died were in their first three days on a job, including eight on their first day.
“The body hasn’t had time to physiologically adjust to the heat,” Hornung said. “[It’s about] ensuring that people know what acclimatization is, and that it takes a person up to two weeks for their body to get used to working in the heat.”
OSHA recommends that new workers, as well as employees returning from a prolonged absence, do 20% of an average day’s workload on their first day on the job. Work should increase incrementally each day, but not by more than 20%.
When summertime heat waves set in, the agency suggests employers implement acclimatization practices. For example, workers should start the first day of the event at 50% of their normal work pace, followed by 60% on the second day, 80% on the third and 100% by the fourth.