Here in the Boston area, we approach another 90+ degree day and the air is thick and muggy, prompting air quality alerts. But that's nothing compared to the heat in California where outdoor workers struggle in 104 degree temperatures, with things are even worse for the firefighters who battle to control rampaging fires. Triple digit temperatures have triggered the state's heat emergency plan. California is one of two states - Oregon being the other - that has issued mandatory heat stress rules to protect outdoor workers. According to California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, employers were fined $828,440 last year for failing to comply with these rules.
CDC report: heat fatalities in crop workers
The CDC recently released an important report on Heat-Related Deaths Among U.S. Crop Workers, 1992--2006. During this 15-year period, 423 workers in agricultural and nonagricultural industries were reported to have died from exposure to environmental heat. The heat-related average annual death rate for these crop workers was 20 times higher than for other workers, or 0.39 per 100,000 workers, compared with 0.02 for all U.S. civilian workers. The majority of these deaths were in adults aged 20 to 54 years, a population not typically considered to be at high risk for heat illnesses. And in the dubious distinction department, North Carolina leads the nation in heat-related crop worker deaths.
Employer best practices
The following are best practices for employers with outdoor workers:
- Train employees and supervisors in heat illness prevention, as well as how to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness and what to do if someone exhibits symptoms
- On days when temperatures require preventive measures, increase the volume of water available to employees. California suggests one quart per hour. It is not enough to simply provide it - workers must be encouraged to drink the water.
- Have shade available for outdoor workers and allow frequent breaks - at least 5 minutes of rest when an employee believes they need a preventative recovery period.
- Have the ability to appropriately respond to any employee with symptoms of illness
- Allow gradual acclimation for workers unaccustomed to working outside - it can take 4 to 14 days
- Know where the nearest hospital is and directions to your work site in case emergency medical attention is needed
- Heat Illness - materials in multiple languages
- CDC Extreme Heat
- National Weather Service warnings - or search by state
- Heat Stress Control and Heat Casualty Management (PDF) guidance from the Department of the Army and Air Force
- OSHA Technical Manual on Heat Stress
- CDC Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat
- Heat Stress: Fluid and Electrolite Imbalance Can Be Fatal
- Heat-Related Illness Prevention - California Division of Occupational Safety and Health
- Outdoor Heat Exposure - Washington State Department of Labor and Industries
- NIOSH: Working in Hot Environments