Summer is here, and for some it’s a time of rest and relaxation, but for food workers it can be the most physically taxing time of the year. The thousands of workers who make their living while exposed to the heat—indoors or out—are at an increased risk during the dog days of summer. In the food industry, heat illness is an often overlooked occupational injury, but the good news is that heat-related hazards can be prevented or minimized.
Properly identifying heat hazards can go a long way toward the implementation of mitigating controls. Hazard identification requires a closer look at the activities both within and outside the facility. Remember, a worker does not need to be outdoors to be at risk.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists stated that workers should not be permitted to work when their deep body temperature exceeds 100.4 °F (38 °C ). Yet in a 2012-2013 review of federal enforcement cases, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uncovered several areas of concern.
20 citations for federal enforcement under the General Duty Clause
13 cases involving worker deaths attributed to heat exposure
7 cases involving two or more workers with symptoms of heat illness
13 of the 20 cases occurred outdoors
7 of the 20 cases occurred in indoor facilities with a local heat source
5 cases occurred indoors with machinery or other heat sources
The first precaution you can take is to be aware of weather conditions that put workers at higher risk. All of the heat related illnesses and deaths above occurred on days with a heat index in the range of 84.0°F–105.7°F (29.0°C–41.0°C). The highest incidence rates occurred while workers were performing preventative maintenance, service, or construction related activities such as:
Maintenance/repair in a permit-required confined space in elevator shafts or pump pits
Boiler/steam room maintenance
NH3 rooftop inspections and repairs
Air condenser preventive maintenance
Sanitation—wearing chemical suits in a confined space or room
Being aware of high-risk conditions and activities is only the first step. Keep in mind the following four preventive measures to take with food workers to help strengthen your approach to heat-related risk management.
The most obvious way to prevent or minimize the risk of heat-related safety issues is to cool down the work environment. Engineering controls such as air conditioning, cooling fans, insulation of hot surfaces, and elimination of steam leaks are a few of the best controls for prevention.
If engineering controls are not feasible or for those working in the outdoors, consider administrative controls, such as frequent breaks in an air conditioned space.
Leverage administrative controls such as work/rest cycles. Make sure workers have access to an adequate supply of drinking water. Keep water supplies close to the work area so workers are inclined to drink water frequently and stay adequately hydrated all day long.
Instead of putting employees to work on heavy workloads from the start, gradually increase workloads over time. Be sure to allow for an increase in the number of breaks needed as workers begin more physically taxing activities.
Special cooling personal protective equipment (PPE), such as insulated suits and gloves and/or reflective clothing, help reduce the potential of heat stress. Jobs such as cleaning and servicing a confined space may need thermally conditioned clothing to help reduce heat-related risks. Examples of thermally conditioned PPE may include a self-contained air conditioner in a backpack, a plastic jacket with chest pockets that can be filled with containers of ice, or a garment with compressed cool air with temperature control through a vortex tube.
Another key factor to battle against the heat is often the most often overlooked—training. It is vital that workers understand and be able to identify the hazards of working in the heat. Be sure that they know the symptoms of heat illness, how to apply first aid, and ways to manage hazards.
Consider these training topics:
Risk factors for heat-related illness
The different types of heat illnesses and symptoms of each
Why frequently drinking small quantities of water is better than drinking large quantities fewer times a day
Company procedures for responding to heat-related illnesses
How to report heat-related illness symptoms as soon as they appear
OSHA offers educational tools for heat illness. Use the information for team huddles or tailgate meetings and to improve existing heat illness prevention and emergency response. One tool I consider to be most valuable is the ‘OSHA Heat Index’ app that can be downloaded for free on your iPhone or Android.
The heat index app will update you on current temperature and humidity for your city or town. The app also lets you know what the current heat hazards are for the day. It classifies each heat index risk as low, moderate, or high. It also advises on precautions to take to reduce heat hazards, emergency planning, and response activities to consider. I utilize this app often, both professionally and in personal outdoor activities.
Remember that heat illness is a critical occupational injury in the food industry, and it’s much more common than you might think. Keeping cool in a heat-intensive environment is imperative to ensure workers’ personal safety. Take a closer look at workers’ activities, properly identify heat-related hazards, and be prepared to implement operational controls to minimize these hazards. It could mean the difference between life and death.
Editor’s Note: Alchemy would like to thank Michael J. Aust at 1030 Communications Group for his partnership in creating workplace safety success for companies large and small.