EHS Management

Climate Change—What’s a Safety Manager to Do?

In a new report recently issued by the Obama Administration, it states that “every American is vulnerable to the health impacts associated with climate change.” Yesterday we reviewed findings in the report that apply specifically to U.S. workers. Today we will consider what safety managers can do to help safeguard their workers from the heat-related effects of climate change.

General tips to avoid heat-related stress

One of the most obvious effects of climate change is higher temperatures. You can help protect your workers from heat stress by:

  • Scheduling maintenance and repair jobs in hot areas for cooler months.
  • Scheduling hot jobs for the cooler part of the day.
  • Acclimatizing workers by exposing them for progressively longer periods to hot work environments.
  • Reducing the physical demands of workers.
  • Using relief workers or assigning extra workers for physically demanding jobs.
  • Providing cool water or liquids to workers. Avoid alcohol and drinks with large amounts of caffeine or sugar.
  • Providing rest periods with water breaks.
  • Providing cool areas for use during break periods.
  • Monitoring workers who are at risk of heat stress.
  • Providing heat stress training.

PPE and heat

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently updated its criteria for Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments. The revision includes updated information and recommendations for effects of clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) on heat exchange.

PPE is required to protect against certain occupational hazards. However, PPE produces its own heat hazard, so there is a need to protect against the heat stress induced by the impermeable garment.

Workers should be trained in the use of and practice in wearing PPE, be in good physical condition, and be encouraged to drink as much water as necessary (e.g., 1 cup [8 ounces] of water or other fluids every 15–20 minutes) to compensate for sweat water loss.

In the revision, NIOSH evaluated four auxiliary PPE cooling approaches.

  1. Water-cooled garments. These garments provide cooling using tubing sewn inside a garment onto either a whole body or limited body regions. Downsides include that water-cooled garments require an external device for operation. The weight and volume of the operating device may limit a wearer’s movement and impose an extra weight burden. In addition, at water temperatures at or below the dew point, condensation around the tubes may increase heat loss from the skin through permeable clothing.
  2. Air-cooled garments. These garments distribute cooling air next to the skin. They use a vortex tube as a source of cooled air for body cooling. Downsides include that the vortex tube is attached to the worker and requires a constant source of compressed air supplied through an air hose. The hose connecting the vortex tube to the compressed air source limits the space within which the worker can operate. NIOSH considers these applicable in many hot workplace situations where mobility of the worker is not required.
  3. Cooling vests. Currently available cooling vests may contain as many as seventy-two cooling packs made of ice or phase-change materials; cooling packs may also vary in weight and size. Downsides include that the cooling packs are effective for a limited amount of time. Exposure to a hot environment would require redressing with backup cooling packs every 2 to 4 hours. Replacing a cooling vest would have to be accomplished when an individual is not in a work situation. On the upside, though, the cooling is supplied noise-free and independent of any energy source or cord that would limit a worker’s mobility. The cooling vest is also relatively less expensive than other cooling approaches. NIOSH considers the greatest potential for the ice packet vest to be for work where other conditions limit the length of exposure, such as short-duration tasks and emergency repairs.
  4. Wetted overgarments. These garments are wetted cotton terry cloth coveralls or two-piece cotton covers that extend from just above the boots and from the wrists to a V-neck. According to NIOSH, under environmental conditions of low humidity and high temperatures where evaporation of moisture from the wet cover garment is not restricted, wetted overgarments can be effective, relatively simple, and inexpensive.

Check® for tools and training tips to protect your workers from heat-related stress and illnesses.