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Protecting Workers from Heat-Related Illnesses

Contributor: Ariana Hanaity, Communications Coordinator, VPPPA

The United States has experienced record-breaking summer heat in recent years, leaving millions of workers exposed to these environmental extremes particularly vulnerable to illness. Between 1992 and 2017, data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that heat stress killed 815 U.S. workers and seriously injured over 70,000. Despite these staggering figures, only four states currently have outdoor workplace heat standards: California, Colorado (for agricultural workers only), Oregon, and Washington.

Promising change, however, is on the horizon for approximately 32 million individuals who work outdoors. New outreach and enforcement initiatives, including a federal heat protection standard, from OSHA to eliminate the incidence of worker exposures to occupational heat-related morbidity and mortality are quickly gaining attention and support from industries across the country—and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The reason? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted a hotter-than-usual forecast for nearly the entire contiguous U.S.

Summer might not officially begin until June 21 with the summer solstice, but historic high temperatures have already begun taking a toll on workers from coast to coast. It’s important to remember that heat-related illnesses are preventable but, when left unchecked, can lead to dire outcomes. Ultimately, prevention requires both employers and workers to recognize and respond to heat hazards.

Symptoms of Heat-Related Illnesses

As the weather begins to warm, it is vital that employers and workers become familiar with heat symptoms. There are several heat-related illnesses that can affect workers, therefore it is essential to train workers accordingly on what symptoms to be on the lookout for. It’s important to note that not only can heat illness strike quickly but also symptoms can occur in any order. Below is a breakdown of heat illnesses, from most to least severe, and their corresponding signs and symptoms retrieved from the NIOSH’s Heat Stress page.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. When it occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within minutes. Heat stroke can cause permanent disability or death if the person does not receive emergency treatment.

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or heavy sweating
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fatal if treatment delayed

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion is most likely to affect older individuals, those who have high blood pressure, or those working in a hot environment.

Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Decreased urine output

Heat Syncope

Symptoms include:

  • Fainting (short-duration)
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness from standing too long or suddenly rising from a sitting or lying position

Heat Cramps

Symptoms include:

  • Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms in the abdomen, arms, or legs

Heat Rash

Symptoms include:

  • Red clusters of pimples and/or small blisters
  • Clusters often appear on areas including the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases

Heat Safety Resources for Employers and Workers

OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool is a free, downloadable app that calculates a worksite’s heat index and displays the associated risk levels. Users can receive precautionary recommendations for heat index risk levels to help protect employees from heat-related illness. The tool is available in English and Spanish.

OSHA’s Occupational Heat Exposure page explains the symptoms of heat illness, first aid measures to provide while waiting for help, engineering controls and work practices to reduce workers’ exposure to heat, and training.

Protecting Workers from the Effects of Heat QuickCard, and similar print materials, can be provided to your workers so they can understand the risks of heat exposure and what actions to take. Keep these materials in a visible area that is easily accessible in the workplace.