SLC 2022 Preview: How to Protect Workers from Heat Stress

Working in the heat is more than hot. It is burdening all systems in the body, can lead to a variety of diseases, and can make the workplace more dangerous for everyone.

EHS today spoke to Margaret Morrissey, Ph.D., president of the Heat Safety & Performance Coalition, a division of the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, where she is also director of occupational safety.

Morrissey and co-host Matt Block of Magid Glove & Safety will speak at the Safety Leadership Conference 2022, which will be held in Cleveland from October 18-20. They will share the latest in thermal safety, a perennial concern that has received renewed attention due to recent heatwaves and the new OSHA national emphasis program launched earlier this year. Below is a preview of what to expect this fall.

EHS today: How will climate change affect the workplace and workplace safety?

Climate change will increase the likelihood and intensity of exposure to extreme heat, which will increase the incidence of developing heat-related injuries and illnesses.

We broke many heat records this summer. There have been times when one in three Americans has been subjected to a heat warning. What can we expect for workers in the future?

Morrissey: As our climate change continues to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of extreme heat events, we can expect conditions for workers to deteriorate, putting them at even greater risk of heat-related injuries and illnesses. There will be an increased need for tailored thermal safety interventions to ensure the protection of workers across all sectors and work sites.

What is a big misconception that workers, safety professionals and / or frontline employees have about working in the heat?

There are many misconceptions that need to be addressed. The first misconception is that all heat stress management plans are created equal. For a heat stress management plan to be successful, it must be specifically tailored to the work environment. For example, although the “water, rest, shade” model is effective in many ways, there are industries that cannot join this because of their working conditions. This includes remote work sites or workers who must wear insulated PPE to protect them from chemical or physical hazards.

Much of the work we do within the Heat Safety & Performance Coalition (HSPC) is to assist employers [so they can] tailor your heat stress management plans to your specific job site to reduce the risk of heat-related injury and illness.

The second misconception concerns the signs, symptoms, and treatment of exertional heat stroke. Exertional heat stroke is a medical emergency that requires aggressive cooling of the patient within 30 minutes to increase survival. There is a misconception that cooling modalities, such as ice packs, are sufficient for treatment.

Research has repeatedly shown that if a worker is aggressively cooled through immersion in cold water of the whole body – the gold standard treatment – and their core temperature returns to normal levels within 30 minutes, they will survive without complications. If this time frame is exceeded, the risk of permanent complications or death increases. It is essential to have a tub or a sheet immersed in cold water (for cooling assisted by a sheet with oscillation).

Additionally, many people believe that a major sign of exertional heat stroke is dry skin. People with exertional heat stroke often do not have dry skin, as they are doing heavy physical work. This misconception stems from classic heatstroke, which is a condition that occurs in the absence of any physical activity in populations such as the elderly who have impaired thermoregulatory and cardiovascular function. Dry skin should not be used as a sign of exertional heat stroke.

What would you like to see from federal OSHA?

Due to the increased frequency of heat-related injuries and illnesses in workers, heat stress management must expand beyond “water, rest, shade”. I’d like to see OSHA focus on other prevention strategies, such as environmental monitoring, to better protect workers from the dangers of heat. I would also like them to focus not only on preventing the heat-related event in the first place, but on preventing a fatality if exertional heat stroke occurs.

As many security professionals know, no security plan is ever 100% foolproof. A heat stress management strategy must include an emergency action plan and procedures for exertional heat stroke to prevent a worker from dying from a condition that is 100% preventable with best practice treatment.

What projects are you currently working on at the Heat Safety & Performance Coalition and the Korey Stringer Institute? Were there any discoveries or insights that surprised you?

We are very fortunate to have many research projects related to work heat stress and worker safety and productivity. Our projects range from laboratory studies examining different heat protection strategies during simulated heat work to assessing gender and racial disparities in occupational heat stress protection.

Within these studies, we were surprised to see the limited use of heat protection strategies in the workplace and the effectiveness of many different prevention strategies on safety and performance outcomes. We look forward to sharing this information in future publications to educate our workforce on the impact of prevention strategies and the gaps in our current understanding and use of these strategies.

You are quite active with other groups and committees. What were those conversations like and what do you think we can expect from these organizations?

I have been very fortunate to work with many safety stakeholders such as AIHA, ASSP, and NIHHIS to create voluntary standards, raise awareness, and address research gaps in our understanding of occupational heat stress.

Following the announcement of the Federal Heat Stress Standard by the Biden administration, many safety organizations have taken the dangers of heat stress very seriously. They have worked tirelessly to fill gaps in the implementation of prevention strategies and in our understanding of the impact of heat on the health, safety and productivity of workers.

The conversations between these stakeholders have been positive and many have joined in the fight against heat stress. I hope organizations continue to focus their efforts on protecting workers from heat and allocate resources to further expand our understanding of its negative impacts.

What is one thing you hope attendees will learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?

While it’s hard to pick one to go, I hope attendees recognize that heat stress is a huge threat to the safety and health of its workers. Implementing a thermal stress management plan is mandatory and does not require a significant number of resources to implement, especially with the help of HSPC!

All construction sites exposed to heat should include a heat stress management plan that includes prevention strategies and a written heat policy.

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