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Summertime, and the Working Isn't Easy

Workplace Fairness®

Outdoor Workers Face the Heat

Every summer, thousands of workers—particularly those in agriculture, landscaping, and construction—spend long days working in the hot sun. And every year, without fail, many die or become ill due to heat exposure.

Heat–related illness often does not receive as much as attention as other workplace hazards and is often under–reported. Recent high profile cases of heat illness have increased public awareness of how dangerous heat can be. Perhaps the most highly publicized case of heat stroke was that of Korey Stringer, a 27–year–old member of the Minnesota Vikings football team. He collapsed after two–and–a–half hours of practice in 90 degree heat. At the hospital, his core body temperature was recorded at 108 degrees. He died shortly thereafter of major organ failure. Many were shocked at how sudden and serious the consequences of heat exposure can be, but his tragic story brought to light a serious workplace hazard that concerns thousands of workers every year.

Heat can cause a variety of illnesses whose consequences range from minor discomfort to death. They include exhaustion, cramps, fainting, rash, fatigue, and—most seriously—heat stroke. Heat–related illness occurs when normal cooling mechanisms cannot adequately cool the body. Usually, sweat evaporates off the skin, cooling the body. However, when humidity is high, the sweat will not evaporate and the body will not cool. When the body cannot cool, its temperature rises.

Heat Stroke is No Joke

While heat–related illness isn't the largest workplace hazard, it may be the most preventable. "Workers need to know how to avoid heat injuries and how to recognize signs of heat stress not only in themselves, but in their coworkers, too. By looking out for each other, they can help protect each other... With increased awareness and some basic precautions, many of these illnesses and deaths can be prevented," says Trese Louie, a safety and health specialist with OSHA.

The human body is capable of adjusting to differing temperatures—even hot ones—but it needs time. Allowing the body to acclimate is crucial when working in hot weather. In fact, most workers who have suffered fatal heat–related illnesses did so within their first four days of employment. Workers who are new to the job, or who have just returned from vacation or leave, should be especially careful their first week. This may include working altered hours (for example, avoiding working during the hottest hours of the day), doing lighter labor, taking more breaks, and drinking a lot of water. Once the body has had time to adjust to the heat, it will be much more capable of adequately cooling itself, reducing the chances of serious injury.

Workers employed outside should wear loose–fitting, light–colored clothing and a hat, and take short, frequent water and shade breaks. Employers and workers should also schedule the hardest physical work for cooler hours of the day. Taking breaks and keeping hydrated are essential, even if the worker doesn't feel tired or thirsty. In fact, heat–related illness can actually make a worker feel that he or she is not thirsty.

Don't assume you're safe just because it isn't scorching hot outside. While heat–related fatalities are more common when temperatures are over 90 degrees, just last year workers died while working in 75 degree heat. Also keep in mind that each person's body reacts differently, and factors such as overall health, obesity, age, and medications affect one's risk.

For a detailed list of heat–related illnesses, along with their causes and symptoms, check out these online resources:

Keeping the Heat on Employers

Earlier this month, California became the first state to adopt heat illness prevention regulations. These new regulations were in response to a particularly tragic summer in 2005 where 13 workers died from heat–related illness in California alone. The regulations require that outdoor employees have access to one quart of water per hour for the entire shift, that employees have the right to take a break in the shade for at least 5 minutes when they feel they need one, and that employers receive special training. To encourage compliance, fines of up to $25,000 per violation may be assessed on employers.

While many praise the new regulations, not everyone is happy with them. Critics point out that the law does not require mandatory breaks, but rather requires workers to ask for a break when they feel they need one. Dr. Robert Harrison, a former member of the OSHA Standards Board and professor of occupational medicine at UC San Francisco, states that it's "risky for us to always rely on workers to ask for rest breaks." This is especially so when the worker is paid by how much they harvest, because there is a strong financial incentive not to take breaks and to keep working. Harrison also favors mandatory breaks because "by the time workers get symptoms of heat illness, it can be too late." Despite its possible shortcomings, even Dr. Harrison admits that the new law is "a first step" towards making field workers safer. More states besides California should adopt similar—if not stronger—regulations to prevent more heat–related tragedies.

Still Hot in Here

Even when all precautions are taken to avoid heat illness, hot weather still manages to increase workplace dangers. For example, sweaty palms cause slips or drops and heat and humidity can cause safety goggles to fog up. Another major danger caused by heat is what it can do to the focus and attention of a worker. Dizziness and reduced mental alertness are common when working in hot weather; this can distract the worker and make an assortment of hazards more likely to occur.

Spending long hours in direct sunlight also puts the worker at risk for developing problems associated with excessive sun and UV exposure. Workers who spend a lot of time outdoors should take special precautions against skin cancer by using sun screen or wearing loose–fitting clothing. Extended sun exposure can also be harmful to the eyes, leading to cataracts. Protective glasses or hats that shade the eyes can lessen this risk.

Depending on the work location, there may be additional safety concerns that arise from being outdoors. Working outdoors will often expose workers to potentially dangerous insects and plants. Exposure to West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and other tick–born diseases is not uncommon for outdoor workers in some parts of the country. These diseases are given to humans through infected insects and can have serious health consequences. In addition, outdoor workers should be careful of the plants they come in contact with. Plants such as poison ivy and poison oak can cause rashes and irritation.

Heat–related illness does not affect only those who work outdoors. Many workers, such as those in bakeries, foundries, laundries, or factories which use furnaces or steam, are exposed to heat dangers year round. Also, many warehouses can seem like saunas when the temperatures soar. These workers and their employers often overlook the increased risk of heat–related illness in the summer and don't take extra precautions in hot months. During the summer, however, the risks of heat–related illness increase significantly because the entire building will be substantially hotter. When temperatures rise, simply opening windows, which may be effective during any other season, will not be enough to protect workers. Proper cooling and air flow are essential to keep indoor temperatures at safe levels.

It's important for all workers, no matter how experienced, to take precautions. Len Welsh, acting chief of Cal–OSHA, states, "Prevention is the best defense against heat–related illnesses. Once a worker actually becomes ill from the effects of heat it can be too late." Workers and supervisors who know about the symptoms of heat exposure will be more apt to take necessary precautions and be more able to identify warning signs before it's too late.

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