Heat Illness Prevention and Training

Heat illness makes thousands of employees sick every year: 2015 saw 2,830 non-fatal occupational heat illness injuries, with 37 cases of heat-related employee deaths, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such injuries can be prevented with heat stress training and the implementation of heat-related safety procedures.

Causes of Heat Illness

Heat illness occurs in both indoor and outdoor environments. Factors that increase the risk of heat-related injuries include:

  • High air temperatures
  • High humidity
  • Radiant heat sources (including sunlight)
  • Direct contact with hot objects
  • Strenuous physical activity

Heat illness prevention training is important in any industry where exposure to heat is an issue, including construction sites, commercial kitchens, iron and steel foundries, farm work, landscaping, laundries, chemical plants, distribution warehouses, oil and gas operations, and glass product facilities.

How Heat Affects the Body

With proper hydration and access to cool shade, the human body does a remarkable job of maintaining a constant core temperature through blood circulation and sweating. At high temperatures, however, blood circulation can no longer cool the body. Sweating becomes the only means of reducing body heat, which robs the body of fluids and salts. Left untreated, the end result of the body’s attempt to cool down is heat illness.

Types of Heat Illness

Heat cramps are caused by salt depletion due to excessive sweating and insufficient hydration. Treat with rest in a cool location, and either electrolyte sports drinks or plain water and salty snacks. Symptoms of heat cramps include profuse sweating and muscle spasms.

Heat Syncope/Fainting occurs when blood vessels dilate to the point where blood flow to the brain is reduced and blood pools in the legs. Symptoms include:

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Increased pulse rate
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Brief loss of consciousness

Injuries due to falling during fainting are possible. Treatment for heat syncope includes lying the person in a shady, cool area, elevating the feet, and cooling with wet compresses and fanning. If choking is a concern, lay the worker on his or her side. The person should regain consciousness quickly. If not, the individual may be suffering from heat stroke, a more serious condition.

Heat Exhaustion results from severe dehydration. Symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired judgment
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Weak pulse

Heat exhaustion is a serious medical condition. Remove the person from the hot environment, provide fluids in a cool location, and remove extra clothing. Cool the individual with wet cloths and fanning. Have the employee medically evaluated as soon as possible, and call emergency responders if symptoms do not improve, the individual loses consciousness, cannot drink or becomes increasingly agitated or confused.

Heat Stroke is a medical emergency. Symptoms resemble heat exhaustion, but the body’s temperature has reached 104 °F or higher. The individual may suffer from confusion and irrational or aggressive behavior. He or she may become unable to drink, collapse, convulse or slip into a coma. Unlike heat exhaustion, the skin of someone experiencing heat stroke is red, dry, and hot to the touch. Call for emergency medical assistance immediately and take what steps you can to lower body heat until emergency responders arrive.

Heat Illness Prevention

OSHA recommends three steps to prevent heat illness: Water, Rest, and Shade. Engineering steps used to make these three factors available to employees include:

  • Air conditioning to cool hot environments
  • Increased general ventilation
  • Cooling fans
  • Local exhaust ventilation as points of high heat
  • Reflective shields to redirect radiant heat
  • Shady areas provided for outdoor workers with temps of 80℉ or lower.
  • Insulating hot surfaces
  • Eliminating steam leaks

In situations where personal protective equipment is required, remember some types of PPE, such as impermeable clothing,  increase the risk of heat-related illness. Hot environments can also increase the risk of injury due to sweaty gloves or fogged-up safety glasses.

Providing PPE designed for hot environments (insulated gloves and suits, reflective clothing, infrared face shields) may be necessary depending on the work environment and relevant tasks.

Acclimatization is important when introducing employees to hot environments. For the first 4 to 14 days in the environment, employees should be provided with frequent breaks and slowly increasing workloads. Work /rest cycles should allow regular breaks in cooler environments even after acclimation.

OSHA requires employers to provide adequate, clean drinking water to any employee working in hot temperatures. As a general rule, employees should drink ½ liter every ½ hour, even if they don't feel thirsty. A daily checklist to ensure all heat illness prevention factors are in place is recommending.

Heat Illness Prevention Training

Heat stress training provides employees with the information they need to work safely in hot environments. Heat illness prevention training teaches employees how to spot the signs and symptoms of heat illness in themselves and their coworkers, the importance of hydration and acclimation, and how to provide assistance to someone suffering from heat illness. A short program can protect your employees from the potentially dangerous effects of excessively hot work environments.


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