Outdoor work in the summer is not just difficult; laboring under hoods, respirators, gloves and other protective gear, it can be deadly.
That’s the critical message that federal health and safety officials are trying to convey to employers with a national outreach campaign aimed at raising awareness about the hazards of working outdoors in hot weather.
|Hydration is critical in keeping the body cool during the summer.|
Every year, thousands of workers across the country suffer from serious heat-related illnesses. If not quickly addressed, heat exhaustion can become heat stroke, which has killed more than 30 workers annually since 2003.
Heat Stress and Protective Gear
All outdoor workers are at risk in the summer, but the dangers increase rapidly for industrial painters, abrasive blasters and others who must wear heavy protective clothing or safety gear.
Such equipment inflicts a double whammy on the body’s cooling system, researchers say, ratcheting up the humidity inside the gear while reducing the ability to sweat.
“The high level of protection required by protective clothing (PPC) severely impedes heat exchange by sweat evaporation,” reported a 2007 study in the journal Ergonomics.
“As a result, work associated with wearing PPC, particularly in hot environments, implies considerable physiological strain and may render workers exhausted in a short time.”
A 2010 study reported in the American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal found that protective clothing “imposed a heat stress equivalent” of adding up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit to the ambient temperature.
That study found “a significant risk of heat injury” when wearing full-body protective clothing—specifically, in that study, when conducting hazardous waste work.
The study recommended that the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists “substantially” lower its threshold limits for heat stress to factor in the effect of protective clothing.
The OSHA campaign also notes that labor in hot weather can raise body temperatures beyond the level that normally can be cooled by sweating. Heat illness initially may manifest as heat rash or heat cramps, but quickly can become heat exhaustion and then heat stroke without simple steps to prevent it.
|Heavy protective equipment puts workers at high risk for heat illness, which can be fatal, experts say.|
“It is essential for workers and employers to take proactive steps to stay safe in extreme heat, and become aware of symptoms of heat exhaustion before they get worse,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
Prevention is not difficult, officials say.
“For outdoor workers, ‘water, rest and shade’ are three words that can make the difference between life and death,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “If employers take reasonable precautions, and look out for their workers, we can beat the heat.”
Resources, Apps and Tools
OSHA has developed heat illness educational materials in English and Spanish, as well as a curriculum to be used for workplace training. In addition, a Web page provides information and resources for workers and employers on preventing and treating heat.
OSHA also has released a free application for mobile devices that enables workers and supervisors to monitor the heat index at their work sites. The app displays a risk level for workers based on the heat index, as well as reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level. The app, in Spanish and English, is available for Android-based platforms and the iPhone.
OSHA is partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to incorporate worker safety precautions when heat alerts are issued across the nation. NOAA also will include pertinent worker safety information on its heat watch Web page.
The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has FAQs about the heat implications of protective equipment.