Protecting Workers from the Effects of Heat
At times, workers may be required to work in hot environments for long periods. When the human body is unable to maintain a normal temperature, heat illnesses can occur and may result in death. It is also important to consider that hot work environments may exist indoors. This fact sheet provides information to employers on measures they should take to prevent worker illnesses and death caused by heat stress.
What is Heat Illness?
The following are illnesses that may result from exposure to heat in the workplace.
Heat Stroke is the most serious heat-related health problem. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulating system fails and body temperature rises to critical levels (greater than 104°F). This is a medical emergency that may result in death! The signs of heat stroke are confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. Workers experiencing heat stroke have a very high body temperature and may stop sweating. If a worker shows signs of possible heat stroke, get medical help immediately, and call 911. Until medical help arrives, move the worker to a shady, cool area and remove as much clothing as possible. Wet the worker with cool water and circulate the air to speed cooling. Place cold wet cloths, wet towels or ice all over the body or soak the worker’s clothing with cold water.
Heat Exhaustion is the next most serious heat-related health problem. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion are headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating and a body temperature greater than 100.4°F. Workers with heat exhaustion should be removed from the hot area and given liquids to drink. Cool the worker with cold compresses to the head, neck, and face or have the worker wash his or her head, face and neck with cold water. Encourage frequent sips of cool water. Workers with signs or symptoms of heat exhaustion should be taken to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and treatment. Make sure that someone stays with the worker until help arrives. If symptoms worsen, call 911 and get help immediately.
Occupational Factors that May Contribute to Heat Illness
- High temperature and humidity
- Low fluid consumption
- Direct sun exposure (with no shade) or extreme heat
- Limited air movement (no breeze or wind)
- Physical exertion
- Use of bulky protective clothing and equipment
Heat Cramps are muscle pains usually caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Workers with heat cramps should replace fluid loss by drinking water and/or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement liquids (e.g., sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat Rash is the most common problem in hot work environments. Heat rash is caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. Heat rash may appear on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts and elbow creases. The best treatment for heat rash is to provide a cooler, less humid work environment. The rash area should be kept dry. Powder may be applied to increase comfort. Ointments and creams should not be used on a heat rash. Anything that makes the skin warm or moist may make the rash worse.
Prevention Made Simple: Program Elements
Heat Illness Prevention Program key elements include:
- A Person Designated to Oversee the Heat Illness Prevention Program
- Hazard Identification
- Water. Rest. Shade Message
- Modified Work Schedules
- Monitoring for Signs and Symptoms
- Emergency Planning and Response
Designate a Person to Oversee the Heat Stress Program
Identify someone trained in the hazards, physiological responses to heat, and controls. This person can develop, implement and manage the program.
Hazard identification involves recognizing heat hazards and the risk of heat illness due to high temperature, humidity, sun and other thermal exposures, work demands, clothing or PPE and personal risk factors.
Identification tools include: OSHA’s Heat Smartphone App; a Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer (WBGT) which is a measure of heat stress in direct sunlight that takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun and cloud cover; and the National Weather Service Heat Index. Exposure to full sun can increase heat index values up to 15°F.
Ensure that cool drinking water is available and easily accessible. (Note: Certain beverages, such as caffeine and alcohol can lead to dehydration.)
Encourage workers to drink a liter of water over one hour, which is about one cup every fifteen minutes.
Provide or ensure that fully shaded or air-conditioned areas are available for resting and cooling down.
Acclimatization is a physical change that allows the body to build tolerance to working in the heat. It occurs by gradually increasing workloads and exposure and taking frequent breaks for water and rest in the shade. Full acclimatization may take up to 14 days or longer depending on factors relating to the individual, such as increased risk of heat illness due to certain medications or medical conditions, or the environment.
New workers and those returning from a prolonged absence should begin with 20% of the workload on the first day, increasing incrementally by no more than 20% each subsequent day.
During a rapid change leading to excessively hot weather or conditions such as a heat wave, even experienced workers should begin on the first day of work in excessive heat with 50% of the normal workload and time spent in the hot environment, 60% on the second day, 80% on day three, and 100% on the fourth day.
Modified Work Schedules
Altering work schedules may reduce workers’ exposure to heat. For instance:
- Reschedule all non-essential outdoor work for days with a reduced heat index.
- Schedule the more physically demanding work during the cooler times of day;
- Schedule less physically demanding work during warmer times of the day;
- Rotate workers and split shifts, and/or add extra workers.
- Work/Rest cycles, using established industry guidelines.
- Stop work if essential control methods are inadequate or unavailable when the risk of heat illness is very high.
Keep in mind that very early starting times may result in increased fatigue. Also, early morning hours tend to have higher humidity levels.
Provide training in a language and manner workers understand, including information on health effects of heat, the symptoms of heat illness, how and when to respond to symptoms, and how to prevent heat illness.
Monitoring for Heat Illness Symptoms
Establish a system to monitor and report the signs and symptoms listed on the previous page to improve early detection and action. Using a buddy system will assist supervisors when watching for signs of heat illness.
Emergency Planning and Response
Have an emergency plan in place and communicate it to supervisors and workers. Emergency plan considerations include:
- What to do when someone is showing signs of heat illness. This can make the difference between life and death.
- How to contact emergency help.
- How long it will take for emergency help to arrive and training workers on appropriate first-aid measures until help arrives.
- Consider seeking advice from a healthcare professional in preparing a plan.
Engineering Controls Specific to Indoor Workplaces
Indoor workplaces may be cooled by using air conditioning or increased ventilation, assuming that cooler air is available from the outside. Other methods to reduce indoor temperature include: providing reflective shields to redirect radiant heat, insulating hot surfaces, and decreasing water vapor pressure, e.g., by sealing steam leaks and keeping floors dry. The use of fans to increase the air speed over the worker will improve heat exchange between the skin surface and the air, unless the air temperature is higher than the skin temperature. However, increasing air speeds above 300 ft. per min. may actually have a warming effect. Industrial hygiene personnel can assess the degree of heat stress caused by the work environment and make recommendations for reducing heat exposure.
Workers have the right to working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm, to receive information and training about workplace hazards and how to prevent them, and to file a complaint with OSHA to inspect their workplace without fear of retaliation.
For more information about workers' rights, see OSHA’s workers page at www.osha.gov/workers.html.
This is one in a series of informational fact sheets highlighting OSHA programs, policies or standards. It does not impose any new compliance requirements. For a comprehensive list of compliance requirements of OSHA standards or regulations, refer to Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations. This information will be made available to sensory-impaired individuals upon request. The voice phone is (202) 693-1999; teletypewriter (TTY) number: (877) 889-5627.
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U.S. Department of Labor
www.osha.gov (800) 321-OSHA (6742)
U.S. Department of Labor
DTSEM FS-3743 08/2014