Intensify the focus on protecting workers in the heat. By Cheryl Palmer
The problem is serious and the outcome is shockingly true: Heat now kills more Americans than any other weather-related event. When heat illness occurs in a worker, it can’t be cured. Once an individual gets too hot, the only thing that can be done is to try to help the body lose heat. However, the damage can be long-term. Depending on individual physiology and the level of exposure, healing from heat-related illness can take days, months, or even years.
Fortunately, the solution is simple when you think about the fact that heat-related illnesses and deaths are 100 percent preventable. But how can a company create a heat safety program for preventing these issues?
Soon, OSHA will provide guidance, with new heat-injury prevention standards. However, companies shouldn’t wait to see OSHA’s standards before they take action to protect workers, and their company, from heat risks.
Good safety programs attract and retain employees
Commitment to safety, including in extreme weather conditions, is good for recruitment and retention. Attracting and retaining employees has been an increasing challenge across the construction industry, exacerbated by the pandemic. Construction jobs pose unique challenges because they require skilled individuals willing and able to work in challenging environments. The construction industry is weather independent and even indoor work sites can be affected by outdoor conditions, such as intensely high temperatures. Workers are exposed to warm temperatures that are becoming more extreme every year. Maintaining a culture focused on safety that addresses increasing risks in extreme environmental changes, such as rising temperatures, will position your company as an in-touch, proactive employer who is attuned to conditions for the workers.
Heat safety programs should focus on protecting every individual on the job
Build an effective heat safety program that is customized to every worker, designed to recognize that core body temperature is a personal physiological response to heat. Body temperature can be directly measured by inserting an esophageal or rectal probe into the body, which is not very realistic on construction sites, so consider less new, less intrusive means of monitoring. Upgrade and enhance your group monitoring policy and work/rest schedules that are likely now based on wet bulb globe temperature (WGBT). Supervisors and foremen are often taught to observe workers and ask them questions, looking for subjective signs of over-heating. Yet new personal protective technology fine-tunes this approach by monitoring individual employees and detecting the onset of heat illness, alerting both employees and supervisors that it’s time for a break, to cool down and physically prepare the body to safely resume work.
Heat safety should happen on site, not from a central location
Some companies implement safety programs from an off-site location, in an attempt to take the administrative burden off the supervisors by making work decisions at a centralized location. However, these programs don’t take into account that locations as little as 30 miles away may have temperature variations of up to ten degrees, which can make a huge difference in individual worker safety.
New monitoring methods enhance prevention
Traditional methods of monitoring worker safety aren’t as effective as modern approaches. When heat safety programs are qualitative in nature, such as when a supervisor is simply visually monitoring workers for signs of stress, there is room for human error. But that gap can be closed if a company stays current on advancements in safety – the greatest gains in effectiveness have come in the heat safety area. When supervisors simply observe workers, symptoms of heat-related illness (HRI) can be subtle and undetectable, or mistaken for something else. Self-reporting approaches can lose effectiveness if workers fear retaliation and therefore do not report their own HRI symptoms. Subjective observations and self-monitoring leave room for impressions that may look or feel discriminatory, which may lead observers to act more cautiously than they should.
Since HRI is hard to quantify and often goes unreported, it is likely more prevalent than statistics suggest. Its symptoms vary, and could include dizziness, disorientation, loss of coordination, confusion, poor decision-making, aggressiveness, and altered consciousness. HRI contributes to a variety of common construction site injuries attributed to slips, trips, falls, dropped objects, and misuse of machinery.
Kenzen designed a heat monitoring system that addresses the complexity of heat safety and is focused on prevention. The Kenzen patch is a wearable device worn on an employee’s upper arm, where it does not interfere with work tasks or equipment and can effectively measure the body’s health in the heat. The system is easy to use. It takes three-to-five minutes to set up an account, and 30-45 seconds each day to don and connect the device to a comprehensive heat monitoring technology system. The Kenzen algorithm provides quantitative metrics to workers and supervisors, which allows them to make educated decisions for managing an individual’s body in the heat. The algorithm is tailored to each employee, stored on the device, and designed to be a preventative approach; alerting workers and their supervisors to stop work before they experience a heat-related illness.
Workers want to work for your company when they feel (and are) safe and valued. They want safety programs they can trust — those that make sense in the worker’s context, can be easily implemented, with results that are clearly evident. Heat is one of the most dangerous risks to your employees because it can’t be seen, symptoms are hard to measure, and reactions are highly individualized. A thorough heat safety program that addresses the individual and uses the best available methods makes sense for employees and their employers.
For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor.
Cheryl Lynn Palmer is customer success manager with Kenzen. She works with companies globally that use wearable technology to predict and prevent worker injuries and fatalities caused by heat. Founded in 2016, Kenzen is workforce safety technology at the intersection of unparalleled Heat Science and Climate Tech. Its physiological monitoring platform protects workforces from heat on the job while providing data-driven insights for improving productivity.