Imagine the heat an August day can generate: picture a long, open road beaten by a sun whose intensity morphs asphalt to a steamy, gummy surface. Add humidity and you have an unhealthy heat index. Farm-workers earning a living in the adjacent, shadeless fields, picking strawberries for twelve hours a day, face risks associated with these conditions.
If you work in an industry that puts you in proximity to extreme temperatures, your safety could be at risk. With temperatures rising each summer, high heat isn’t a matter of comfort, but workplace safety. If your employer refuses to take steps to mitigate these dangerous conditions, a qualified local attorney could help you—and your fellow workers—keep cool this summer.
Extreme heat can be deadly
Workers in climate-controlled facilities may find it difficult to fathom the extremes a body endures when working in high heat. Nonetheless, such conditions are a reality for nearly 130 million workers, according to Public Citizen. Occupations presenting extreme temperature scenarios include landscaping, construction, police, farm labor, airport tarmac work, smelting plants, sanitation jobs, postal carriers, and jobs in offices or warehouses lacking air conditioning, to name a few.
Extreme heat and humidity can lead to death, as was the case for a 24-year-old farm worker, Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez, who collapsed while picking tomatoes on a farm in Georgia in June of 2018. He died of cardiac arrest resulting from heat stress. The temperature was 95 degrees with a heat index of 103-104 degrees Fahrenheit. Sadly, an abundance of similar stories is not lacking.
Where you work, and the work you do, both determine the temperatures of your working environment. Aluminum potroom workers are one group at high risk for heat-related injury and death. Their labor includes rigorous physical tasks in close proximity to smelters. Reducing alumina to pure aluminum necessitates temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. If the smelting plant is an outdoor facility in Texas, or another state where high temperatures are common, chances of heat-related illness rise further.
Mitigating occupational heat stress
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor. OSHA’s mission is “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” Employers, according to the OSHA website, must provide a safe workplace, “free of known health and safety hazards.” Does your employer comply with OSHA’s standards?
Even with advocacy and awareness, between 1992 and 2016 close to 700,000 people suffered from heat stress injuries while on the job, resulting in 783 deaths. Employers have a legal responsibility to maintain a safe working environment and should monitor temperatures if heat advisories are in effect, ensuring precautionary measures such as reducing job demands.
OSHA’s national campaign to raise awareness and prevention is Water. Rest. Shade. Read on to find out how these three, simple words spell out a preventative protocol.
Laboring in extreme heat
Extreme heat is, at a minimum, a 2 to 3-day period with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, accompanied by high humidity. If the relative humidity is 60 percent or higher, perspiration does not evaporate, hindering the body’s natural ability to cool itself. Such conditions force the body’s systems to work harder than usual to maintain a normal temperature.
Performing manual labor in heat boosts body temperature even higher due to physical exertion, and the reported heat index rises by another 15 degrees in direct sunlight. Taken together, the chance of heat stroke shrinks to a mere 15 minutes of exposure, if conditions are right.
Human beings can build up a tolerance to heat exposure, according to Dr. Scott Youngquist, an emergency room doctor at the University of Utah Health Care. Even so, it takes several weeks to acclimatize workers to heat-related conditions.
OSHA recommends a gradual introduction to hot work conditions for new workers, suggesting a 20 percent workload on the first day, increasing incrementally by no more than 20 percent each day thereafter, ultimately spanning the course of up to three weeks as the body gradually adjusts to the heat.
Recognizing heat-related illness
Heat Fatigue is the mildest onset of heat illness, manifesting as heat cramps or a heat rash, both signs of heat exposure.
Heat Exhaustion is a result of losing too much water and salt from sweating. If left untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. The Mayo Clinic states heat exhaustion symptoms include:
- Cool, moist skin
- Heavy sweating
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Low blood pressure upon standing
- Muscle cramps
Heat Stroke is a medical emergency occurring when your body cannot cool itself down. The failure of the body’s temperature control system, medically defined by a core body temperature greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, can affect the central nervous system, cardiovascular system and renal system: organs strain and fail. Symptoms are:
- High body temperature accompanied by hot, dry skin OR profuse sweating
- Stay hydrated by drinking extra fluids. Include sports drinks with electrolytes to avoid salt depletion.
- Wear loose clothing, and wide-brimmed hats (when possible)
- Wear sunblock
- Take frequent work breaks
- Rest in the shade
- Watch coworkers for signs of heat exhaustion
Steps to take if your employer is negligent
The first recourse for handling non-compliance with OSHA standards by your employer is to know what conditions should be. If your employer does not meet them, you can file a complaint with OSHA.
According to James E. Butler, a personal injury attorney with Miller, Rosnick, D'Amico, August & Butler, P.C. in Bridgeport, Connecticut, “A private attorney will get involved when an OSHA violation has led to some type of injury (work-related or otherwise) and compensation is being sought for that injury.”
Employers can be fined for violating OSHA protocols. However, Butler says, there may be “administrative remedies that have to be exhausted before a claim can be brought for OSHA violations. For example, if someone is a member of a union, there are typically steps that need to be addressed by the union representative on behalf of the employee. If there is no resolution at the end of those steps, then a claim can be pursued.”
Educating yourself with OSHA’s standards and sharing the information with coworkers fosters a proactive approach to safety at work. When in doubt, Butler says, “There is never a wrong a time to speak to an attorney. Even if just to find out the right procedure and protocols.”