OR Heat-Related Deaths Highlight Safety Need
A roofing worker has reportedly died of heat-related illness in Oregon, following what officials are calling a “record-setting heatwave,” according to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
According to reports, the unnamed worker was inspecting a potential leak from a condensate line at the end of June, during the hottest day on record in the state, which registered at 116 degrees F.
The worker reportedly collapsed onsite after coming down from the roof and later died in the hospital from heat stress on July 9, according to a spokesperson for the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council.
The death is one of four heat-related fatalities that are currently under investigation by Oregon OSHA. The worker was employed by Robinson Construction, which has not commented on the incident.
The heat wave in general in late June was responsible for at least 115 confirmed and suspected deaths across the state. Out of the 83 confirmed deaths, 31 were women and 52 were men.
The Department of Labor released its annual heat safety reminders last month, timed to honor the heat-related death of a New York worker the year before. Timothy Barber, 35, died on July 7, 2020, at the end of his shift working on the Genesee River Bridge Project in Geneseo, New York.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s investigation into the death found that Barber had been performing what would be considered light-duty work: sorting bolts. However, he was in 90-plus degree temperatures.
He was reportedly working alone, working without shade, working without water and not acclimated to the heat. OSHA also determined that his employer, Pavilion Drainage Supply Company Inc., failed to train him and implement other safeguards to protect him and other employees against extreme heat hazards.
“Timothy Barber should not have died. We call attention to this worker’s death so that other workers do not suffer from or succumb to heat-related death and illnesses. They are preventable,” said OSHA Area Director Michael Scime in Buffalo. “Employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. This includes protecting workers from extreme heat.”
Therefore, OSHA is reminding everyone that has temperatures rise, so do work risks.
Symptoms of excessive heat exposure include: heat stroke, heat stress, cramps, headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, heavy sweating and confusion.
Occupational factors that may contribute to heat illness include: high temperature and humidity, low fluid consumption, direct sun exposure, no shade, limited air movement, physical exertion or use of bulky protective clothing and equipment.
OSHA says that employers with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish and implement a heat illness prevention program and communicate it to supervisors and workers. This includes:
“Don’t wait until a worker is sickened to address heat stress – take action,” said Scime. “Employers in Western New York and other areas must take action to keep workers from becoming ill. Effective preparation and knowledge of the hazards of heat can save lives today, and in the future. Three simple words: Water, Rest, Shade can make a huge difference when implemented in the workplace.”
OSHA also directs professionals to its Occupational Heat Exposure page, which explains symptoms of heat illness as well as first aid measures, proactive engineering controls and work practices to reduce workers’ exposure to heat.
Earlier this year, physiological monitoring platform Kenzen announced that it had partnered with Kansas City-based firm Garney Construction to test out a new, wearable smart device to monitor health indicators of each worker.
The devices are worn on the arms of 28 Garney workers at 10 worksites throughout the United States, and they monitor things such as core body temperature, heart rate and exertion level. These measurements are being studied for proactive prediction and prevention of heat injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
Data from the sensors provide alerts to workers by sending notifications to the device and smartphones, as well as to supervisors’ phones and a web dashboard. The tech provides real-time heat health status updates of all team members.
Alerts can escalate from a “stop work” message to alerts for additional measures in emergency situations. After a worker has paused to rest and/or hydrate, additional alerts let the worker know when their temperature has returned to a safe level.
During the time of the announcement, data was being taken from different kinds of locations, from Arizona to Florida to Colorado, and the data will be gathered to detect patterns and customize heat stress prevention and treatment strategies.
Despite annual reminders and warnings from OSHA, some places have taken heat illness prevention a step further. In 2019, a Florida lawmaker introduced a bill that would set a statewide standard for those working outdoors in relation to heat illness prevention.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, would mandate that workers be given plenty of drinking water, access to shade and 10-minute rest breaks enforced after every two hours of outside labor.
In addition to access to water, shade and breaks, the Florida House bill, and its companion bill in the state Senate, would also require training to spot signs of heat exhaustion and an acclimatization period for workers.
While OSHA has guidelines and recommendations to avoid heat hazards, there is no set standard for heat exposure.
Led by nonprofit Public Citizen, the petition called for OSHA to do more than just point to suggested guidelines provided by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and argued that, as the climate changes, workers are experiencing more and more heat stress every year, which can take a dangerous toll on the body.
According to the government, 69,374 workers were seriously injured from heat between 1992 and 2016, and 783 U.S. workers died from heat exposure. By combining climate projects and census data, Public Citizen concluded that, by 2050, more than 1 million agriculture and construction workers will experience 30 days or more of dangerous heat per year.
While OSHA endorses NIOSH’s criteria, it has never created a nationally enforceable rule requiring employers to provide water, rest, shade and, more specifically, acclimatization programs or training to recognize symptoms of heat illness.
OSHA does provide visual indicators for heat index levels, which are the baselines for the NIOSH guidelines. However, those levels were also put under the magnifying glass last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees NIOSH.
In August 2018, the CDC released findings from a study that determined whether the heat index limits are effective in protecting workers. The CDC retrospectively reviewed 25 outdoor occupational heat-related illnesses—14 fatal, 11 nonfatal—investigated by OSHA from 2011 to 2016.
Research found that heat stress exceeded exposure limits in all 14 fatalities and in eight of the 11 nonfatal illnesses.
OSHA recommends using the heat index to protect workers, and separates temperatures into four categories: