Extremely hot weather this summer is keeping safety coordinators at area companies on their toes.
While exposure to heat isn’t specifically covered under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, Richard Hobbs, the newly appointed president and CEO of the Manufacturers Resource Center of the Lehigh Valley, said it’s still a company’s responsibility to keep staff safe from overheating.
“Companies have a general duty to protect workers from hazardous conditions and heat can certainly become a hazardous condition,” Hobbs said.
Dr. John Wilson, director of emergency medicine at St. Luke’s Anderson Campus in Bethlehem Township, said conditions like heat exhaustion and heat stroke are real threats during episodes of extreme heat.
Generally, his advice during heat waves like the Greater Lehigh Valley has been experiencing is to stay out of the heat and if possible in an air-conditioned space.
That’s fine for the average office worker, but many professions don’t offer such luxuries.
Because of their large size and design, many factories, warehouses and fulfillment centers are difficult and costly to air condition, Hobbs said. So, when it gets hot outside, such structures get hot inside.
But, there are steps employers at such facilities can and will take to help lessen heat exposure, Hobbs said.
“You’ve got to open up the air circulation — windows, doors – keep the air moving,” he said.
Hydration is also important for workers, he said.
Keeping water jugs, juices or Gatorade-type beverages and ice on the work floor and encouraging employees to take frequent water breaks will help prevent dehydration.
He said if it gets to the point where it’s “too, too, too, hot, where people are struggling,” he said additional measures, like staggering shifts or giving employees breaks to get into an air-conditioned area, could be warranted.
There are fewer options for cooling down for those toiling outside on road work or construction jobs.
Patrick Dolan, president of Dolan Construction Inc. of Reading, said his company has been keeping a close eye on employees out in the field.
The firm’s safety coordinator has sent out safety messages to all sites warning staff to keep an eye out for signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke – two of the more serious heat-related conditions – and tips on how to stay cool and hydrated.
“We try to work around it the best we can, but heat happens,” Dolan said. “We try to talk to the guys about working smart.”
The company also lets workers start shifts earlier and then end before the peak heat of the day.
“That way they can get a head of the worst part,” he said.
They can also work alternate days, perhaps taking off on a really hot Tuesday and working on a Saturday when the weather is supposed to be cooler.
Dolan also makes sure its construction sites always have plenty of water on hand so that workers can stay hydrated, he said.
Wilson offered other tips for people who need to work outdoors.
He said outdoor workers should dress appropriately, wearing clothing that is both lighter in weight and in color to keep from absorbing heat.
Workers also should avoid alcohol and caffeine – so no coffee breaks or an after-shift beer.
And, of course, always use sunscreen.
He emphasizes that his advice is for everyone.
“Young, healthy people are often over-confident. They think [the sun and heat] won’t affect them, but it certainly can,” he said.
Wilson said treatment for an overheated person can be as simple as taking them to a cool place and giving them fluids, but 9-1-1 should be called and immediate medical treatment should be sought if a worker is exhibiting any signs of heat stroke.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, signs of heat stroke include:
In addition to calling 911, colleagues can move the person to a cool place and help lower the person’s temperature by applying cool cloths or a cool bath. However, the CDC warns, the person should not be given anything to drink due to the risk of choking.