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Rising temperatures pose significant safety risks for people working outside

July 19, 2022  By Canadian Center of Occupational Health and Safety

Global temperature records are being broken every year, with regional wildfires and extreme weather events happening, which is indicative that we live and work in a warming world. What does this mean for outdoor workers? Rising temperatures are not just devastating to nature, wildlife, and vulnerable populations – they also pose significant health risks to workers from heat-related illnesses. To make work environments safer, employers must understand the dangers and take steps to protect workers from extreme heat events.

Understand how extreme heat affects workers, operations

The images we see in film and TV of road heat mirages are usually being experienced by an overheated, weary traveler on the verge of collapse. Now picture this scene again with someone hard at work in the sweltering heat, with no shade in sight, and wearing heavy personal protective equipment.

Hot weather can cause various health issues like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Working for prolonged periods of time in higher temperatures can increase the risk of injuries due to fatigue, lack of concentration, and poor decision-making, which is often accompanied by a drop in productivity.

Hotter temperatures can also increase the levels of air pollution and harmful exposures for workers. Increased sunlight, warmer temperatures, wildfires and droughts, and the buildup of air contaminants due to stagnant air, are all factors that Bad air Air pollution, UV rays and heats are a lethal mix for people with chronic health conditions including respiratory issues, heart disease and allergies. contribute to poor air quality.

What typically occurs when air quality advisories are issued is that the presence of air pollution, combined with UV rays and heat, results in a chemical reaction that produces ground-level ozone which is harmful to breathe.

There may also be higher levels of allergy-causing pollen in the air due to longer pollen seasons, and increased production. These impacts on air quality are linked to chronic health issues such as respiratory disease, heart disease, and allergies.

Moreover, increasing temperatures may cause elevated levels of stress on workers, including those who work in emergency services. Outdoor workers may experience stress when they need to change their schedules and hours due to the temperature, which can impact their work-life balance.

Equipment and materials, especially those items used outside, can be impacted by higher temperatures, as equipment components are made to work harder and possibly wear out faster. This overheating may cause delays, unexpected disruptions, higher maintenance costs, and an increased risk of injuries for operators and anyone nearby.

Have the right programs and procedures in place

Start by developing a heat stress plan. When will heat stress controls be needed? How will your organization monitor factors that can cause heat stress? Include details on work-rest cycles – when to shorten work periods and increase rest periods – and the heat stress controls that are specific to your work environment.

Extreme heat events should also be addressed in your emergency preparedness and response plans. Have supervisors check in frequently with workers to identify potential heat stress symptoms. Ensure workers trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) are present and that other workers know who they are and how to contact them. Develop and document first aid procedures for those experiencing heat stress, keeping in mind that heat stroke is a medical emergency and help should be called immediately (911 or your local emergency services).

Ask the health and safety committee to address extreme heat events and climate change as part of their work. Promoting access to mental health resources, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and consulting regularly with workers about scheduling, stress, and fatigue can help encourage a psychologically safe work environment.

Identifying risks before work begins

When working in the heat, implement control measures well ahead of time to protect workers, including providing time for them to acclimatize. In an extreme heat event, workers who are not used to the higher temperatures may find it difficult to deal with the heat while performing their job.

Although extreme heat can put everyone at risk for heat-related illness, the risks are greatest for those with chronic illnesses, such as breathing difficulties or heart conditions, pregnant women, and older adults. Risks also increase for workers performing physically demanding work, those working outdoors or in a building with no air conditioning, or those working with or near equipment that generates heat. Those who are without access to cool drinking water and a shaded or sheltered area to rest are also vulnerable.

What workers and employers can do

The most effective way to protect workers is to implement preventive measures and controls to eliminate or minimize their exposure to extreme heat.

Review weather forecasts and pay attention to heat advisories when scheduling work outdoors and whenever possible, reschedule the work meant to happen during heat advisories for a cooler time of day. If rescheduling is not an option, rotate workers in and out of the hottest areas or tasks that are the most physically demanding. Also, ensure workers take plenty of breaks and are provided with a cool and shaded area in which to rest and drink water (the importance of staying hydrated cannot be over-emphasized).

Instruct workers to stop work immediately and report to their supervisor if they experience signs of heat stress. You can also provide mechanical aids to reduce the level of physical effort that is required for tasks, such as dollies, carts, or lifting devices.

Organize work in a way that reduces the pace and therefore decreases overheating. One way to do this is to consider assigning more workers to a task to reduce the level of effort required by each worker. Where appropriate, workers can opt for personal protective equipment that is light and breathable along with sunscreen and protective clothing to prevent sunburns.

The key to avoiding heat-related illness is prevention. Make sure everyone understands the signs and symptoms of heat stress and how to recognize it in others. Instruct them to notify a supervisor immediately if they or their coworkers experience any symptoms, or if they have any health and safety concerns.

As global temperatures rise, extreme heat is likely to be a regular occurrence during the warmer months. Help your workplace adapt by including procedures to prevent and respond to heat related illness in your health and safety planning, and fostering a culture where workers are encouraged to speak up if they or their coworkers are not well.

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