Don’t Sweat It!
SCM was providing safety support during a large maintenance operation at a chemical plant. As part of the operation, workers had to enter empty tanks to repair and clean them. The workers suited up in chemical protective clothing and respirators and entered the tank. It didn’t take long for one of the entrants to stumble out, obviously suffering from heat exhaustion. Was it a sunny, warm spring day? No, it was in the middle of February, and the temperature was in the 40’s. His heat-related illness was brought on by performing vigorous work while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
Heat related illnesses are serious business. The most serious is heat stroke, where your body can no longer control your internal temperature or produce sweat. Those who experience heat stroke must receive emergency medical treatment immediately. Even then, there is a chance that you might not be able to survive. Think of Korey Stringer, a professional football player with the Minnesota Vikings. He died in a hospital from complications brought on by heat stroke. It is reported that at the time of his death, his internal temperature was 108.
As serious as heat-related illnesses are, while the Federal OSHA encourages heat illness prevention, there are currently only three states that mandate employers to take steps to protect their employees. California, Washington and Minnesota have heat-related illness regulations, links are provided to the right. While there are some differences in the regulations, there are three similarities, all of which are important to remember as we approach the summer’s rising temperatures.
1. Acclimatization: How are people who live in extreme temperatures, such as are found in places like Palm Springs, CA or Las Vegas, NV, able to work outdoors? In addition to shifting schedules to work in the early morning when it is cooler, they also become used to the temperature. They allow themselves to gradually acclimate to the heat. This usually takes between one to two weeks. Regulations require that supervisors watch new employees to make sure they acclimate to the heat.
2. Water: It is estimated that outdoor workers need to drink a cup of cool water every 15 to 20 minutes. The California heat illness regulation requires water to be as close as practicable to where the work is happening at all outdoor work sites. The Washington regulation states that water must be provided “Regardless of temperature, at all times of the year….” Also, please notice that the heat illness prevention regulations specify water, not “beverages.” Most studies that tell you sports drinks are more beneficial seem to be sponsored by the sports drink industry. Water is recommended as being able to hydrate sufficiently by medical experts, such as at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
3. Training: What good is it to have rules when your employees don’t know what they are? It is required to let your employees know what the regulations require. Additionally, supervisors and foremen should have additional training, because, especially in California, they have the responsibility to watch the weather reports and prepare for potential emergencies when temperatures reach 95 degrees or more.
Speaking of weather reports, OSHA and NIOSH have teamed up to produce an app that can help with heat illness prevention. Some of the features of this app are that it provides current heat indexes for your location, precautionary recommendations for preventing heat related illnesses and reminds you of the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses.