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Heat-related illness is on the rise, be proactive & keep workers safe!

Sep 20, 2023

Jeff Pluta

Industrial Hygiene Community of Practice Leader

As the Earth warms, extreme heat events are becoming more frequent and severe, and as our climate changes, these events are also expected to last for longer periods. In fact, the 10 warmest years in the 143-year record have all occurred since 2010, with the last nine years ranking as the nine warmest years on record, according to the NOAA Annual 2022 Global Climate Report. Known as a silent killer, extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related fatalities in the U.S. To help prevent and reduce the risk of heat stress and heat-related illness for their employees, employers should have a Heat Stress Management Plan in place.

Employers should be aware that on October 27, 2021, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) for Heat Injury and Illness Prevention in Outdoor and Indoor Work Settings. This ANPRM proposes a standard, specific to heat-related injury and illness prevention, which will set forth clear employer obligations and necessary measures to effectively protect employees from hazardous heat. In July of 2023, OSHA issued an alert to remind employers of their obligation to protect workers against heat illness or injury and announced that OSHA will intensify its enforcement where workers are exposed to heat hazards. Although OSHA’s rulemaking is not yet law, OSHA can enforce guidelines for heat-related hazards that they believe are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm. In lieu of a federal rule, some states including California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado, have proactively enacted standards imposing heat-related illness prevention.

In today’s extreme heat environment, employers can’t wait for employees to show the lagging indicators of heat stress—headache, nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps or heavy sweating—to act. By this point, it may already be too late. To effectively protect their employees, employers must understand the myriad of factors, including high humidity, direct physical contact with hot objects or strenuous physical activities, that may contribute to heat stress during the normal course of an employee’s workday. They can’t rely on temperature alone to monitor heat exposure.

Today, employers can monitor their employees’ exposure to heat stress in real time, utilizing some of the latest digital tools. For example, employees can don wearable arm sensors which can continuously monitor their heart rate, core temperature and exertion, allowing employers to actively monitor employee responses to heat strain and make informed and immediate decisions regarding an employee’s health and safety. The data logging ability also allows historical data to be utilized to potentially predict employee responses to future environmental conditions. Such tools can provide immediate insight into the combination of factors that contribute to heat stress, and help employers determine the needs of their Heat Stress Management Plan (HSMP). The execution of a HSMP sets workplace policy, training, hygiene practices, surveillance, physiological monitoring, recordkeeping, and an emergency plan.

Companies can incorporate the real time insights from digital technology into their HSMP, enabling supervisors and employees to receive alerts when the wearable technology detects symptoms of heat strain. With the use of this proactive, personal heat strain monitoring technology, employers will no longer need to rely on the lagging indicators of heat stress, and with real time monitoring and data logging, health and safety professionals can identify individuals who are at risk of potentially developing a heat-related illness and take proactive actions to protect them from serious bodily harm.

Arcadis has helped our clients proactively manage and prevent employee heat stress, both indoors and outdoors, with a balanced approach to risk management, powered by digital technologies. Wearable technologies can improve worker safety, enhance productivity and optimize operations, and utilizing a customized Heat Stress Management Plan, tailored to your company’s specific needs, can safeguard your employees from heat-related injuries. Pairing digital technologies with traditional heat prevention methods can help your company develop a best-in-class heat stress prevention program and ensure your employees’ safety is the highest priority.