How to Protect Workers from the Heat

Author: Ashley Shaw, XpertHR Legal Editor

Many employers, such as those in construction, have employees who may often spend a lot of time on the job outside in the sun. In the summer and in areas with warmer temperatures year-round, this can present many problems for the employer. Employees who are not protected from the sun may face many health-related incidences, such as sunburn, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, some of which may prove fatal. When the weather gets hot, employers should take steps to protect workers from the heat to keep workers healthy and safe and avoid liability.

Step 1: Take Advantage of OSHA's Guidance

Knowing how to handle this area can be difficult as the obligation to protect workers from the heat is not specifically referenced in the applicable law. However, even though there is no direct standard on it, OSHA may fine employers who do not take care of employees who work in the sun through their General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide safe and healthy workplaces from known hazards, which can and has been interpreted to include heat from the sun. However, to help,

In addition, OSHA offers many resources such as posters, training guides, safety facts, and much more on its website of which employers would be wise to take advantage. Employers may use these resources as a way to double check their heat illness prevention program and to better educate and train workers.

Step 2: Educate and Train Workers

One of the most important things employers can do to protect workers is teach them how to protect themselves. The information in the training should include the things that the employer will be doing for the workers (e.g., provide water at the site) and what the workers should know (e.g., how to recognize heat-related problems and what to do when a problem occurs). However, the training might also include helpful information that the employee can use on his or her own time.

The following are things that employers might want to mention to workers:

  • Bring, put on and reapply sunscreen to avoid burning (remember: a burnt, sore worker is a worker that may not be able to work as hard as normal);
  • Wear a hat or sunglasses if possible; and
  • Wear light-colored clothing.

Step 3: Keep Workers Out of the Sun as Much as Possible

If possible, employers should keep employees out of the sun. This might mean allowing them to do jobs inside, if possible, even if it is something they would normally do outside. It might also mean setting up work stations in the shade when possible, or shutting down the site during high heat times (i.e., mid-day) and instead working earlier in the morning or later in the cooler evening hours.

Step 4: Start New Workers Out Slowly

One of the most common reasons a worker has problems in the sun, is that he or she did not have time to acclimate themselves to the heat. When a worker first starts a job, especially when coming from a job with no hard physical labor or that was not in the sun, he or she should be given shorter hours, more breaks and lots of water. The same is true for all workers when the weather first gets hot.

Step 5: Provide Frequent Breaks

No matter how used to the sun workers are, it is important to offer them frequent breaks as a means to protect them from the sun. Whether this is done by offering a break area inside an air conditioned building or underneath a shaded awning, a rest area should be created and offered to workers every couple of hours.

Step 6: Provide Water Sources

Employers should not only offer a way for employees to get water, they should encourage workers to drink water often, especially if they have not yet been acclimated to the heat. It is important to keep workers hydrated under these conditions.

Step 7: Know the Problem Signs and How to Handle Them

In case a problem occurs despite the above safeguards, an employer should be able to recognize the signs of a heat-related problem and know how to handle it. All employees should receive training on how to respond to these situations as it is often the individuals in the field who will witness the initial signs and need to initiate the proper response process.

Heat Exhaustion

Symptoms:

  • Headache and/or dizziness;
  • Sweat;
  • Feelings of weakness;
  • Thirstiness;
  • Nausea; and
  • Irritability.

Heat Stroke

Symptoms:

  • Many of the same symptoms of heat exhaustion intensified;
  • Fainting;
  • Seizures;
  • Fever;
  • Confusion; and
  • A lack of sweat.

What to Do:

In its heat training guide, OSHA recommends the following help for a worker suffering from heat exhaustion or stroke:

  1. Get help! This might mean the employee who spots the ailing worker calling a supervisor, the supervisor calling for medical help, or both and/or any other approved system, but help will likely be needed.
  2. Have someone stay with the worker at all times.
  3. Get the worker to a shaded or cool area.
  4. Slowly, but frequently, issue water for as long as the worker is conscious and/or not vomiting.
  5. Loosen the clothing on the worker.
  6. Try to cool the worker off through fans, ice packs or wetting his or her clothes.

Additional Resources

OSHA's Heat Training Guide

OSHA's Heat Center