COVID-19, Injuries and Illness, Personnel Safety

Prepare Returning Workers for Extreme Summer Heat

With businesses reopening this summer after extended periods because of COVID-19, special attention must be paid to properly retraining workers in safety procedures and how to deal with the extreme heat much of the country has experienced.

heat illness

Mark Lies, partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, says the onus is on employers to ensure their workers are ready to deal with the heat.

“Employees have to be trained and they also have to be acclimatized,” he notes. “People who have been home for a year and a half are not going to be used to the work and won’t be acclimatized.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that you try to acclimatize people 20% a day so after a week, they’ll be acclimatized, says Lies.

Lies encourages businesses to “start from scratch” with their training. “We’re seeing people coming back and [employers] are throwing them in the workplace and they’re forgetting their training,” he says. “We’re going to see a big spike in the [Bureau of Labor Statistics injury rates] for this time when people come back to work.”

Extreme concerns

We’re only in mid-July and already many parts of the country—including the Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast—have dealt with extreme heat conditions that are setting records. This makes it even more important for businesses to ensure they’re adequately prepared to have workers performing laborious tasks in this weather, Lies says.

The federal government doesn’t have a standard in place regarding heat illness, but certain states including California do, requiring that you guarantee employees a certain amount of rest time, shade or air conditioning, and certain amount of water. Lies notes that the federal government has a lot of guidance documents about heat illness. If you’re going to expose employees to heat, you need to consider the raw heat temperature, humidity, and the type of work they’re doing (i.e., how much metabolic heat are they generating).

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers have a written program in place to deal with heat illness, and the agency expects supervisors to have more training. Hydration is a major focus.

“You’ve got to hydrate. It might be too late before you get thirsty,” Lies says. “You have to constantly remind employees to hydrate. They’re supposed to observe employees drinking water.”

Lies says some of his clients use a checklist that requires them to ask how much employees have been drinking. They need to supply water and something to replace electrolytes, either a sports drink or a powdered additive that can be mixed in with water.

There are four types of heat illness to watch for in workers:

  • Heat rash
  • Cramps
  • Heat exhaustion: You start sweating profusely
  • Heat stroke: Your body stops sweating and starts breaking down

Be prepared

Lies recommends that employers do the following to ensure their workers are prepared to work in the heat:

  • Have sign-up sheets for training
  • Provide online training on heat illness
  • Do a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) to find out if you have a hazardous situation
  • Put it in writing so you know what to do in low heat hazard, medium, high and extreme situations

OSHA expects you to check the weather forecasts to be aware of potentially extreme conditions, Lies says. If it’s going to be very hot, you may choose to close the worksite, close early, or have lots of breaks.

“Temperatures can vary on a work site,” he notes. “All you can do is have general parameters and supervision.”

If you have a heat illness-related death, you must notify OSHA within eight hours, adds Lies. If an employee is hospitalized for heat illness and admitted, notify OSHA within 24 hours. If an employee loses work, it goes in the OSHA 300 log.

Another consideration is whether your workers are vaccinated against COVID-19. If they’re not, OSHA recommends that they wear masks, which creates another issue when it’s extremely hot.

“Face coverings get wet, which makes it harder to breathe,” Lies says.

Supervision is of vital importance, he adds.

“Workers feel pressure to keep working because they need the jobs,” says Lies. Which makes it that much more critical for supervisors to watch for the signs of heat illness.

Many industries at risk

Lies says workers most at risk for heat illness include those working in agriculture, construction, and transportation. In addition, there are concerns for material handlers who work outside, employees working inside manufacturing facilities such as bakeries and restaurants, and those working construction in vaults.

“You’re going to see a tremendous amount of citations coming out of this,” he says.