This year’s heat wave, which has scorched portions of the U.S. with triple-digit temperatures for much of the summer, could be well on its way to setting grim new records for on-the-job heat-related injuries and fatalities.
Under such circumstances, it’s crucial for organizations to have policies and procedures so heat stress and exhaustion can be prevented or addressed. In most workplaces, employee training and the use of work practices may serve as the most useful measures, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.,
These work practices aren’t necessarily new or revolutionary: workers should drink plenty of water, alternate work and rest periods, and wear protective clothing and sunscreens. When possible, employers should schedule work at night or early in the morning when it’s cooler. Such guidelines are effective, and many organizations follow them.
But not all organizations can. Take the U.S. Army, for instance. Soldiers don’t get to choose optimum times or temperatures for doing their jobs. To enable the proper assessment of conditions, including environmental hazards like heat and how to respond to it, the Army teaches risk management principles and techniques to commanders and troops alike.
The fundamental tenet of risk management is to "only do things when the benefits outweigh the potential cost," says Kathleen Crawford, chief of safety at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "The Army works really hard to make sure that commanders understand that risk. It’s the responsibility of the commanders to take care of their soldiers."
To deal with the heat, the Army uses OSHA-recommended work practices, including extensive training for both commanders and soldiers in the signs and treatment of heat stress. To prevent heat incidents, the Army provides commanders with awork/rest/water consumption table that establishes heat-to-work-difficulty relationships and dictates the necessary water consumption and work-rest cycles.
"Commanders must assess the task category and then use this table as a risk mitigation tool," Crawford says. If soldiers are working in heat of more than 90 degrees on an arduous task—walking quickly on a hard surface while carrying a 40-pound load, for example—the table says troops must drink a quart of water every hour and take a 50-minute rest break for every 10 minutes of work.
Like the Army, utility companies can’t choose convenient, cool times to send out field crews. In fact, for utilities where electricity demand peaks in the summer, working hours are extended in the hot months to serve customers. Such is the case for Georgia Power, which serves 2.3 million customers. About a third of the company’s 9,000 employees can be found working outside on any given day. Another 2,000 employees work in power plants, where temperatures near the boilers can reach 120 degrees if it’s 100 degrees outside.
Georgia Power’s most important managerial tool in injury prevention, including heat-related incidents, is a safety initiative, Target Zero, which it started in 2005.
"Target Zero aims to change the mind-set so everyone goes home every day the same way they came in," says Truitt Eavenson, the utility’s manager of safety and health.
The initiative has made safety a way of life, both at work and at home. Safety briefings, for example, are held every morning and at the start of every job, and even water bottles carry safety notices.
"If a new person comes to a job, he or she gets a safety briefing," says safety and health supervisor David Pitts. "We talk about staying hydrated, using sunscreen and staying out of the sun." Since Target Zero was implemented, the company’s injury rate has dropped more than 50 percent.
Georgia Power also uses OSHA’s recommended work practices. Where practical, the company brings crews in at 6 a.m. in an attempt to finish jobs before the heat gets too oppressive. It supplies plenty of cold water for field workers throughout the day, as well as air-conditioned trucks for breaks. Both managers and field crews learn about heat exhaustion, and managers must monitor employees and address signs of distress.
Reducing or eliminating injuries from heat or other causes has obvious human benefits, but such reductions also save companies a lot of money.
The average workers’ compensation cost for any type of injury, including heat-related problems, is around $11,000, once medical treatment and time off are factored in, according to Allen Abrahamsen, assistant vice president of construction safety services at global insurance and reinsurance company ACE-INA. Additional "hard" costs include insurance premium increases; lost money from idle equipment, facilities and workers; possible OSHA fines and legal expenses; and potential hiring outlays to replace employees who can’t return to work. "Soft" costs include operating or production delays and reductions, investigation time, possible decreased employee morale and perhaps even the loss of reputation.
OSHA mandates that all companies in the U.S. must provide safe workplaces free of hazards, including those related to heat.
"Without policies in place, a company is much more likely to be cited and to have an accident," Abrahamsen says.