As summer temperatures rise and continue to stay at highs over the next couple months, protecting workers from the dangers of heat-related illnesses becomes paramount. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. governing body responsible for ensuring safe and healthy working conditions, continually updates its standards to mitigate heat-related risks. The latest effort is the Heat Illness National Emphasis Program (NEP), implemented just last year, which is effective until 2025.
While heat illness is largely preventable and
incidents are widely under reported, thousands of workers are sickened each
year by workplace heat exposure. According to the National Weather Service,
extreme heat is the nation's leading weather-related killer. In 2021, across
the U.S., 36 workers died from heat illness, and an average of 67,515 people
visit the emergency room each year due to heat-related stress. Last April, OSHA
initiated enhanced measures to better protect workers in hot environments and
reduce the dangers of exposure to ambient heat. Understanding OSHA’s
heat-related safety efforts, as well as taking steps to effectively help
protect and communicate with workers about safety concerns, can help to reduce
the risk of heat illnesses.
Why OSHA Created the Heat Illness NEP
The current heat illness NEP exists to increase workplace safety culture and help employers implement lasting changes that benefit workers and keep them protected against commonly prevented heat injuries and fatalities. While NEPs sometimes create confusion and a rush for workplaces to comply, as it relates to heat, OSHA has implemented a variety of efforts to provide as much information as possible to comply with the NEP, including a heavy focus on providing readily available educational resources.
Here are a few key points on this NEP:
- Enhanced Worker Safety: The NEP places a strong emphasis on creating safer work environments by ensuring employers implement preventive measures and provide adequate resources to protect workers from heat-related hazards. This initiative aims to reduce the number of heat-related illnesses, injuries, and fatalities.
- Increased Employer Accountability: Through inspections and enforcement, the heat illness NEP holds employers accountable for maintaining safe working conditions. By conducting regular audits and providing guidance, OSHA encourages employers to proactively address heat illness risks and implement preventive measures.
- Improved Training and Education: This program promotes robust training programs to educate workers and supervisors about the risks associated with heat exposure. By increasing awareness and knowledge, workers are better equipped to recognize early signs of heat illness and take appropriate action to protect themselves.
- Collaborative Efforts: By collaborating with stakeholders, OSHA can leverage the expertise of industry associations, labor organizations, and community groups to develop and disseminate effective heat illness prevention strategies. This collaborative approach ensures a wide range of perspectives are considered, which can lead to more comprehensive and practical solutions.
- Safety Controls for Heat Illness
- Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heat cramps, and heat rashes are common conditions that can have severe consequences, including organ damage or even death. There are numerous engineering, administrative, and personal protective controls recommended by OSHA that you can implement across your workplace, which we have detailed in a previous blog post here.
While the specific requirements of the NEP may vary depending on the industry and region, these six general guidelines are available to assist employers in protecting their employees:
- Risk Assessment: Employers must conduct thorough risk assessments to identify potential heat-related hazards in their workplace. Factors to consider include temperature, humidity, radiant heat sources, work intensity, duration of exposure, and personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements.
- Written Heat Illness Prevention Plan: OSHA mandates the development and implementation of a written heat illness prevention plan tailored to each worksite. This plan should outline procedures for acclimatizing employees, providing water and shade, scheduling rest breaks, training workers on heat illness prevention, and establishing emergency response protocols.
- Communication and Training: Employers are responsible for educating workers about the risks associated with heat exposure and the preventive measures in place. Training programs should cover recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses, the importance of hydration, the use of protective clothing, and the significance of rest breaks in mitigating heat stress.
- Water and Shade: Providing potable drinking water and access to shaded or cool areas for rest breaks is crucial. Employers must ensure an adequate supply of water, encouraging workers to hydrate frequently, and allowing them sufficient time to rest and recover from heat exposure.
- Acclimatization: Gradual acclimatization to working in hot environments is crucial for workers' safety. New employees or those returning from an extended absence should have a period of adjustment, gradually increasing the duration and intensity of their work to build tolerance to heat stress.
- Monitoring and Surveillance: Employers should regularly monitor environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity levels. Additionally, supervisors should observe workers for signs of heat-related illnesses and encourage employees to report any symptoms promptly.
By conducting risk assessments, developing comprehensive prevention plans, providing training, ensuring access to water and shade, facilitating acclimatization, and monitoring conditions, employers can create a safer environment for their employees.
Implement Visual Warnings for Heat Illness
Safety signs can be an effective tool to help raise awareness and promote safe work practices – including reinforcing preventative measures – about heat-related hazards. Key considerations include:
- Identify critical areas and place signage accordingly: Determine the areas within your workplace where heat exposure is a concern. These may include outdoor workspaces, manufacturing areas, or locations near heat-emitting equipment. Position signs in locations where they’re easily visible to employees.
- Carefully plan your sign content: Create
clear and easily understandable signs that convey the risks associated with
heat exposure and the necessary precautions. Also consider:
- Using ISO standardized symbols that are universally recognized to improve comprehension, especially for workers who may have limited English proficiency.
- Including educational messages on workplace signs to raise awareness and educate employees about the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Provide information on the importance of hydration, rest breaks, and the use of protective clothing. If there is too much text on the sign that you fear comprehension may be an issue, consider a ‘refer to manual’ approach for workers visit further documentation or resources.
- Incorporating heat index information into communications to provide a quick reference for workers. The heat index combines temperature and humidity levels to determine how hot it feels, helping individuals assess the risk of heat-related illnesses.
- Bilingual or multi-lingual signage, especially important for employees with limited English proficiency. Translating signs into languages used by your workers can help ensure inclusivity and effective communication.
- Align your sign’s message with your company’s comprehensive heat illness prevention strategy. Your signs shouldn’t operate in a vacuum; the information they provide should complement your heat illness prevention plan, training programs, and safety meetings. This will help to reinforce the importance of following the instructions on the signs and explain their significance in preventing heat-related illnesses.
- Regular inspection and maintenance: Regularly inspect your signs to ensure they’re visible, free from damage, and up to date with your company’s policies and safety strategies. Replace signs that have faded, become illegible, or are damaged. Signs that are place in high UV exposure zones may experience fading faster than others.
Remember, how well a sign communicates its safety message relies on its visibility, clarity, and relevance. Regularly assess the impact of your warnings and instructions, and consider feedback from workers to improve their effectiveness. Additionally, complement the use of signs with ongoing training, proper equipment, and a comprehensive heat illness prevention plan to create a holistic approach to worker safety.
Experts in Risk
Reduction and Visual Safety Communication
Our team at Clarion Safety and Machine Safety Specialists is here to help with your risk reduction and visual safety communication needs. We offer an extensive collection of OSHA, ANSI, and ISO compliant safety signage. If you need help determining what signs are appropriate for your workplace – or are in need of custom options – reach out to a member of our safety team today!