Welcoming Remarks by
Dr. David Michaels
Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health
Press Conference with Meteorologists and Weather Forecasters
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Good afternoon. I'm Dr. David Michaels. Thank you for joining this news conference especially for meteorologists and weather reporters.
In many parts of the country this week you are already reporting extreme heat events. Here in DC, even though summer has not officially begun, we are already experiencing some very hot days.
Whenever there is high heat, outdoor workers are at increased risk for heat-related illnesses and deaths. Every year, dozens of workers are killed by heat, and thousands more experience heat-related illnesses. In 2012 alone, at least 31 workers died of heat related illness and 4,120 became sick - and this is no doubt an underestimate, since many heat-related deaths and illnesses are not recognized as caused by heat.
This is why the Department of Labor has launched a nationwide awareness campaign for the last three years to keep outdoor workers safe on the job. It is very important that we work together again this summer to get the word out that working in high heat can be deadly.
Here is just one example:
On June 5, 2013, 31-year-old Michael White collapsed on his third day loading garbage onto a disposal truck in Houston, Texas. He was working the hardest and heaviest route, requiring him to load 16 tons of garbage over a sweltering hot 10-hour day. He was not acclimated to working in the heat, and his employers didn't ensure that workers were getting enough water, rest, and shade.
The average heat index that day was 94°F. For the last five hours of Michael's shift, it was 97°F. At 4:53 pm, when he finally collapsed, the heat index had reached its maximum of 99°F.
Michael suffered heat stroke, was hospitalized and died 4 days later. Following an investigation into his death, OSHA issued citations to both the host employer and staffing agency for failing to protect Michael and his coworkers from heat illness. No penalty will bring White back to his mother, his brother, or his nine-year-old daughter. But perhaps it will cause other employers to think twice before they try to dodge safety laws.
OSHA wants to help raise awareness about these preventable tragedies and provide resources so working in the heat doesn't become deadly. That is why we have joined forces with NOAA and all of you and why we conduct our annual campaign to prevent heat illness in workers.
To prevent further fatalities, we are asking you to share our campaign's simple three-word message. "Water. Rest. Shade." If outdoor workers are provided these precautions, it can mean the difference between life and death.
Employers are responsible for providing workplaces that are safe from serious recognized hazards, including environmental heat. Heat is a serious hazard that affects workers in many industries. We have found that the workers who are most at risk for heat-related illnesses are those who are new to outdoor jobs - especially temporary workers - or those that have returned from more than a week away. Workers are particularly at risk if the weather has just gotten hot, and they have not been acclimatized to the heat.
Our message to employers is:
- Provide workers with water, rest and shade; workers should drink water every 15 minutes, even if they are not thirsty; rest in the shade to cool down; and wear a hat and light-colored clothing;
- Acclimatize new and returning workers to the heat by gradually increasing workload and providing breaks;
- Train workers about the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and their prevention; and
- Monitor workers for signs of illness.
For the last few years, the National Weather Service now includes worker safety information in all its extreme heat alerts and important worker safety information now is included on NOAA's Heat Watch page. We are grateful to the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for their partnership.
With me today is Vice Admiral Michael S. Devany, NOAA Deputy Undersecretary, who will tell us about the dangerous temperatures and weather trends that are expected this summer.
Before we take your questions, I want to take a moment to tell you a little more about acclimatization.
OSHA has found that many serious illnesses and deaths occur where the employer has no heat illness prevention program in place at all, or where there were major gaps, such as no program in place to allow workers to build up a tolerance to heat - this is called acclimatization.
Seasonal workers can be considered new even if they have been working every season for several years. Gradually increasing the workload and giving workers time to acclimate allows them to build tolerance to the heat. This is critically important for workers who are new to working outdoors in the heat, who have been away from working in the heat for a week or more, or at the beginning of a heat wave. Workers need to get used to hot environments by gradually increasing exposure and taking frequent breaks for water and rest in the shade. Employers need to be particularly concerned about these workers - but all outdoor workers need Water. Rest. Shade.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
The two most important illnesses to watch out for are heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
- Heat Exhaustion. Symptoms include: headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst and heavy sweating. It can turn into heat stroke quickly if immediate action is not taken.
- Heat Stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms include: confusion, fainting, seizures, very high body temperature and hot, dry skin or profuse sweating. The visible signs of heat stroke are red, hot, dry skin or excessive sweating, confusion, seizures and fainting.
In both cases, a person may not recognize the signs themselves, so it very important to look for signs in coworkers and companions. We educate workers to take heat exhaustion very seriously and stop for first aid before it becomes heat stroke. If possible, a buddy system helps to monitor for signs and symptoms in coworkers.
Over the last few years, we have reached over 10 million workers and employers in more than 4,000 training sessions, outreach events, informational sessions, publications, and media appearances. We've distributed over half a million posters, fact sheets, and other educational materials. To learn more and view all our materials, including our low literacy fact sheet and workplace poster in both English and Spanish, visit www.osha.gov.
We have also worked with the National Weather Service to develop our smart phone heat safety app. This app can help employers and workers monitor dangerous heat levels throughout the summer. The app pulls data directly from NOAA, allowing you to calculate risk levels at a worksite - it also displays the protective measures needed to prevent heat related illness. Over 130,000 people and counting have already downloaded the app.
WE NEED YOUR HELP
I'd like to ask for your help by incorporating worker safety into your weather broadcasts.
Often when reporting heat-related stories, you highlight those most at risk: young children, the elderly, pets. You will be doing a vital public service if you also include outdoor workers as a reminder that they, too, are at risk, especially during heat waves.
We need your help to get the word out to employers that they are responsible for providing work environments that are safe from excessive heat. This means regular breaks for workers so they can cool down. It means regular access to water so workers can stay hydrated. It means training for workers on the symptoms of heat illness - and what to do if they see a co-worker showing signs of dehydration or heat stroke.
Anyone overcome by heat should be moved into the shade immediately, and 9-1-1 should be called... because heat stroke is an emergency.
It's my hope that with all of us working together we can build a network of weather broadcasters who can respond quickly to extreme heat and get our message to workers and employers all across our nation when they need us the most.
I have no doubt that by working together, we can save lives. Thank you again for joining us today.