Educational campaigns and accessible resources coupled with technology and meteorology precision have made it possible for employers to provide site-specific weather information and the proper resources and training for employees to combat the risk of heat exposures. Tools such as OSHA’s heat index app calculate the heat index for the worksite, display a risk level for workers, and provide reminders about the protective measures that should be taken at that risk level.
Yet, every year thousands of workers suffer from heat illness and some die. Why?
In some cases, it’s organizational factors such as indifferent or callous supervision, poor workplace conditions, and unrealistic production expectations, which reflect the company’s overarching culture. Yet, many employers are proactive and do an excellent job in training employees and implementing procedures to prevent heat stress that aren’t followed by some employees.
Here are five problem-solutions related to employee behavior and heat stress:
- Problem: Risk perceptionSome employees simply underestimate how serious heat illness can be. They’ve worked in the heat before without incident – been there, done that – can’t happen to them. Moreover, the symptoms of heat illness can be subtle and misinterpreted as mere annoyances rather than signs of a serious health issue.
That’s why the American Society of Safety Engineers calls heat the “unseen danger” at construction sites. If a heat rash appears or a cramp develops, workers can dismiss them as an inconvenience and continue working without applying a powder or getting water or a sports drink. Even signs of heat exhaustion such as thirst, heavy sweating, headache, nausea, dizziness, and irritability can be interpreted as being tired from working in the sun.
Potential solutions: Make rest and shade breaks mandatory, pre-shift reminders about the symptoms of heat stress, foster a ‘stop and think’ culture, buddy system, make sure employees are aware of the worst-case scenario, and use testimonials and share previous incidents to heighten awareness.
- Problem: Don’t understand hydrationDehydration not only leads to heat stress but also impairs visual motor tracking, short-term memory, and concentration leading to work-related accidents. Most workers know that staying hydrated is critical when working in hot and humid environments.
But “staying hydrated” means different things to different people. To some, it means waiting until they are thirsty to drink. To others, it means grabbing an ice-cold soda loaded with sugar.
As a general guideline, the recommended amount of water intake is one quart per hour (ideally one cup every 15 minutes) of active work for the average adult. However, every worker is different. Workers with underlying medical conditions or those who are new to the work environment have unique hydration requirements.
Potential solutions: Have water easily and readily available, provide reusable water bottles, enforce breaks, educate with detailed information about how to hydrate (frequency, water vs.sports drinks, predisposing medical factors, effects of diet, drinking alcohol) and the symptoms of dehydration, and issue frequent reminders and weather alerts throughout the day.
- Problem: Inexperienced workersSummer work means many young and inexperienced workers and OSHA statistics prove that these workers are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses. Whether it’s lack of knowledge, an immature attitude, fear, a desire to fit in and prove their worth, or an invincible mindset, some young workers try to side-step an acclimatization program and keep up with more seasoned workers with deadly results.
Potential solutions: Have a mentoring program, tailor training, establish consequences for failure to follow rules, and consistently interact with workers to gauge how they’re feeling.
- Problem: Heat illness mythsEven well-trained employees can fall back on myths, misconceptions, and inaccuracies in the “heat” of the moment. Some common myths are:
- When you’re having heat stroke, you don’t sweat
- Acclimatization will protect you during a heat wave
- Salt tablets are a good way to restore electrolytes lost during sweating
- Off-duty drinking and diet do not adversely affect the ability to manage job-related heat
- Medications/health conditions will not affect the ability to work safely in heat
Potential solutions: To debunk myths, employees need to understand them. Make them a part of ongoing training.
- Problem: Bantering and sense of controlBanter is commonplace in many physically demanding jobs. Good-natured joshing and jibing can reduce stress and help to build strong teams. Yet, when bantering moves to rough-and-tumble horseplay or bullying it can lead to dire consequences. When workers are made to feel that needing a break is a sign of weakness – “don’t be a wimp,” “man-up” – a critical line is crossed.
Potential solutions: How workers perceive the ease or consequences of horseplay or bullying is a key factor. All organizations should make clear what is acceptable and set clear boundaries. Importantly, drill home the message that workers are responsible for each other’s safety and make sure supervisors walk the talk.
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