Is Extreme Heat a Danger in the Workplace?

extreme heat

The consequences of global warming are all around us, and we constantly read about how lives are being impacted from this phenomenon. Although there have been ongoing news reports about fires in the West and an increase in hurricanes over the past few years, rising temperatures also pose a threat for people who work indoors and outdoors in hot temperatures. In fact, last September the Biden administration proposed a set of workplace safety standards that were devised to protect employees from extreme heat. It hopes to alleviate occupational heat exposure for those employed in delivery, landscaping, construction, and agriculture, plus employees working in kitchens, warehouses, and factories.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is involved, and plans are underway to establish a workplace heat standard for indoor and outdoor work settings. The agency claims that they are ready to start enforcing protections for people working in extreme heat, especially in temperatures above 80 degrees. In the meantime, the administration is collecting data on how extreme heat events impact people and is working to protect vulnerable communities and coordinate the federal response to these kinds of situations.

What Is Heat Illness?

The human body depends on its innate ability to dissipate excess heat and maintain a safe internal body temperature. To get rid of the heat, the body reacts by sweating and providing increased blood flow. When this cannot keep up with the heat, the temperature continues to rise and the victim may experience heat exhaustion. Symptoms include increased thirst; dizziness; cool, clammy, and pale skin; excessive sweating; muscle cramps; nausea or vomiting; and a weak, rapid pulse. When this happens, the person needs to drink water, use cold compresses or take a cold shower, and rest in a cool place.

Heat stroke is much more serious, and victims may experience disorientation; confusion; a throbbing headache; slurred speech; vomiting; red, dry, and hot skin; or unconsciousness. Their body temperature can soar to 103 degrees or higher. When these symptoms are present, call 911 but do not give the person anything to drink. Relocate them to a cool area, and either give them a bath or cool them with cold compresses until help arrives.

Employees who perform physical activity in extreme heat are more susceptible to these heat-related illnesses. Exertion creates metabolic heat that is generated by muscle activity and increases the body temperature even higher. It is easy to see how someone who is working outside in 90-degree heat, trimming bushes and mowing lawns without the proper protection and safety procedures, is at high risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke. There are some workers who are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses as well. 

People with risk factors such as alcohol and drug consumption, previous heat-related illnesses, use of certain medications, and a lack of physical fitness could be more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. This group also includes those who have high blood pressure, heart disease, are overweight, or are age 65 and older. Environmental factors that contribute to heat illnesses include the amount of humidity in the air, the strength of the sun, working on something that absorbs heat such as a road surface or roof, and wearing personal protective gear.

How Can My Employer Protect Me from Extreme Heat?

Employers are responsible for maintaining workplaces that are free from known safety hazards such as extreme heat. OSHA recommends having comprehensive heat illness prevention programs that focus on providing adequate water, shade, and rest. Employees should be monitored for signs of heat illness, and there should be a plan in place for emergencies. Proper training is also essential, and that is not a one-time thing; these lessons need to be reinforced on a regular basis. Besides that, new and returning workers should be instructed to gradually increase their workloads to build up a tolerance for working in hot conditions.

Employers can reduce workplace heat stress by implementing engineering and work practice controls. The first guideline is to limit the amount of time in the heat and increase the recovery time in cooler environments. Workers should be encouraged to take breaks to hydrate and cool down, especially when they feel heat stress. Additional workers can be used to help lessen the physical burdens and amount of time spent in the heat. Employers can also supply plenty of cool, potable water in the work area, and it is recommended to drink at least eight ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes when in the heat for up two hours. Employers can also provide tools that can minimize the amount of manual strain. Providing fans to increase air velocity, reducing steam leaks, and providing heat-absorbing and reflective barriers and shielding can also help.

Again, employee training is one of the best ways to prevent extreme heat illnesses. This applies to supervisors as well, and they can have the power to enforce the standards. Some employers hire outside companies to provide this kind of safety training, but others do it in-house. Topics such as heat acclimatization, how to work with weather reports, responding to emergency situations, monitoring one’s own or other worker’s fluid intakes, rest breaks, and signs of heat stress should all be covered. 

It is also in your own best interest to protect yourself from the heat. Prepare yourself by avoiding alcohol the day before and while you are working, as it is very dehydrating. Having a few beers at lunch could be detrimental to your health when it is that hot out. Cover your head with a scarf or hat, especially if the sun is shining brightly. Instead of wearing dark, heavy, or tight clothing, choose lightly colored, lightweight, and loose-fitting garments. Shield your eyes with a pair of good sunglasses, and remember to take breaks and hydrate.

What Can I Do if My Employer Is Not Addressing This Problem?

Each year, millions of employees in the United States are exposed to heat while working. Fifty to 70 percent of outdoor fatalities happen within the first few days of working in hot environments, since the body has to build up a tolerance gradually to these conditions. Thousands more fall ill from occupational heat exposure. You might be surprised to learn that employees who suffer from extreme heat illnesses also work in laundries, in boiler rooms, and in gas and oil well operations. Heat illnesses are preventable, and employers are legally responsible for providing safe workplaces. This includes:

  • Making employees aware of the risks
  • Providing proper training
  • Responding right away when employees become ill or injured

Failing to do any of these can lead to emergency situations at workplaces. If you believe that your employer is not taking these responsibilities seriously, you can start to address the situation by speaking to your coworkers. If others feel the same way, a group can be formed to discuss the issue with a supervisor. There would need to be some show of proof, such as heat stress symptoms being experienced, temperature readings, and unsafe workplace environments and practices. 

Should this initial step prove unsuccessful, there is the option of filing a complaint with OSHA. Employees are entitled to workplaces that are free from recognized hazards, including both extreme heat and extreme cold. Certain states have specific laws that apply to extreme heat in workplaces, so it might be possible that the employer is breaking state laws. Note that it is against the law for employers to retaliate against workers who file OSHA complaints. If you have suffered an illness or injury directly related to extreme heat in your workplace, you will want to first consider filing a Workers’ Compensation claim to cover your medical expenses and time lost from work. 

Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Help Clients with Workplace Injuries from Extreme Heat Conditions

As an employee, you are entitled to a safe working environment, but accidents, injuries, and illnesses occur all the time to people who work both indoors and outdoors. If you have been injured from extreme heat or another unsafe working condition, contact the caring, skilled Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. We will fight to secure the benefits for which you are entitled. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

Our offices are conveniently located in BaltimoreGlen Burnie, and Prince George’s County, where we represent clients throughout Maryland, including those in Anne Arundel CountyCarroll CountyHarford CountyHoward CountyMontgomery CountyPrince George’s CountyQueen Anne’s CountyMaryland’s Western CountiesSouthern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, as well as the communities of CatonsvilleEssexHalethorpeMiddle RiverRosedale, Gwynn OakBrooklandvilleDundalkPikesvilleParkvilleNottinghamWindsor MillLuthervilleTimoniumSparrows PointRidgewood, and Elkridge.