The Hazard: rash, cramps, muscle spasms, dehydration, low blood pressure and heat stroke.
Who is at risk: workers in streets/highways, utilities, public works department, laundry and cafeterias, and other places where it is hot.
Prevention: use air conditioning and fans to reduce heat, allow time to get used to heat, drink plenty of fluids, adjust schedules, take breaks in a cool or shaded environment.
Laws: there is no OSHA standard that protects workers against high heat exposure but OSHA can use the "General Duty Clause" to protect workers.
WHAT HEALTH PROBLEMS CAN BE CAUSED BY HEAT?
Too much heat can be a serious problem for AFSCME members who work outdoors or indoors where it is hot. The health effects include:
Heat rash, also called prickly heat, usually occurs in hot, humid conditions. Perspiration does not evaporate, leaving the skin wet and the sweat ducts become clogged. The uncomfortable rash is not dangerous, but can become infected from scratching.
Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that usually occur after heavy sweating and not drinking enough fluids. The spasms are usually in the arms, legs, or abdomen.
Heat exhaustion symptoms include tiredness, dizziness, clammy skin, excessive sweating, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, and irritability. Heat exhaustion is caused by a loss of body fluids (dehydration) and a drop in blood pressure.
Heat stroke is the most serious of the heat-related illnesses and requires immediate medical attention. The body is no longer able to cool itself and shuts down completely. The victim's temperature is usually 105 degrees or higher and the skin becomes hot, dry, and red or blotchy. The worker may become confused, unable to recognize the problem, delirious, go into convulsions or become unconscious. Without prompt treatment, the worker can go into a coma and die.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Jobs that require workers to be outdoors in high heat are at risk, such as streets and highways, sanitation, public works, parks and recreation, and many other occupations. AFSCME members who work in laundries, cafeterias, boiler rooms and other inside locations are also exposed to high heat.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT WORKERS FROM HEAT?
- Equipment that reduces heat (engineering controls): Air conditioning, fans, exhaust ventilation, reflective shielding are examples of equipment that can reduce heat.
- Adjusting to heat (acclimatization): The body can tolerate higher heat levels by working in hot conditions for short periods of less than two hours, and gradually increasing the amount of time spent working in hot conditions. The adjustment can be made in about a week, but the length of time it takes to get used to heat varies from person to person depending on age, weight, and other factors. If the worker is away from the heat for as little as two to three weeks, the process of getting adjusted will have to be repeated.
- Flexible schedules, breaks, job rotation (administrative controls):
- Job schedules and assignments should be changed so that the heaviest physical work is done during the early morning or evening hours, rather than the hottest part of the day.
- Where possible, outdoor work should be delayed until the weather is cooler.
- Spread heavy tasks to more workers to reduce the amount of time each worker must spend on a job.
- Workers need to take breaks more often and rest more in a cool place.
- If possible, workers should be able to rest or rotate to other duties in a cooler place.
- The temperature where work is performed should be checked on an on-going basis.
- Training and medical care: Workers need training to recognize heat-related health problems and treatment, and regular medical examinations.
- Clothing (personal protective equipment): Loose-fitting clothing with many openings lets air circulate near the skin and allows sweat to evaporate. Clothing should be light colored.
ARE THERE LAWS TO PROTECT WORKERS FROM HEAT?
There is no federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) standard for heat, but OSHA can use the "General Duty Clause" to protect workers. The General Duty section of the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires that employers provide their workers with employment and a place of employment that are free from recognized hazards that have caused or are likely to cause death or serious injury.
The Minnesota OSHA law has a standard that applies to indoor work. The United States Army and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) each have guidelines for work in hot environments.
For more information about protecting workers from workplace hazards, contact the AFSCME Health and Safety Program at (202) 429-1215, or 1625 L Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036.