Heat up your safety game: Tips to keep cool in the summer sun
By Anna Shoultz
With warmer weather arriving across Canada, we’ll soon be in the thick of summer heat. That means employers, and workers, need to prepare to avoid heat-related illnesses in the workplace.
While this is no surprise, it is worth mentioning that heat-related hazards can, and do, pop up much more unexpectedly than many of the predictable occupational hazards that are seen year-round.
MJ MacDonald, CEO of Construction Safety Nova Scotia (CSNS), said that — compared to other hazards in construction such as speeding drivers — heat is something that we tend to be less aware of as a risk.
Creating a plan to address heat can make a big difference when it comes to safety and there is a need for employers to step in and monitor conditions closely.
Top safety hazards related to temperature
“As we look at safety hazards related to temperature, heat-related illness is the biggest safety concern to workers being exposed to high temperature,” said Kristin Onorato, Specialized Services Lead with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) in Ontario.
Some workers may also have certain health conditions and medications that increase their susceptibility to heat-related illness. Workers should be aware if they are at higher risk and make sure they are monitoring symptoms closely.
Summer is a busy period in construction, as weather begins to taper out into warmer, drier days. However, as temperatures change quickly, it can be quite difficult for workers to acclimate.
Depending on which part of the country workers are in, these hazards may shift as well. For example, working in southern Ontario — where temperatures are fickler — is quite different than working in the more moderate climates like British Columbia and Nova Scotia, both indoors or outdoors.
The awareness that heat stress is completely preventable is important to remember.
“Start the workday with a ‘safe work plan’ that considers the impacts of heat, or the potential impacts of heat,” said Suzana Prpic, senior manager of prevention field services at WorkSafeBC.
Employers should have specific, documented, hot weather policies in place, which address responses if certain issues arise, such as a ventilation system failure, a heat wave, or sudden increased humidity.
“We should always consider the hierarchy of controls (elimination/substitution, engineering, administration, awareness, and, as a last resort, PPE) when trying to protect workers from any type of hazard at the workplace,” said Onorato.
Because heat is often overlooked as a risk factor, building awareness that it poses a threat is a good way to empower workers, said MacDonald.
It may not be as visible as things like trip and fall risks, or working at heights, but it can cause significant injury and should be monitored in every industry.
In Ontario, Onorato noted that there are no specific laws in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) or regulations related to heat. But the “general duty” clause to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstance always applies.
“The MLITSD also has a heat stress guideline. Guideline No. 33: Working In Extreme Temperature Conditions, that all employers are encouraged to read and follow,” she said.
WorkSafeBC has regulations specifically addressing heat stress. Part 7, and sections 7.27 through 7.32 outline the regulatory requirements for protecting workers.
MacDonald noted that her organization developed an app in concert with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) dealing with heat stress.
Avoiding heat stress: Proper nourishment and hydration
Workers looking out for one another is a crucial means of support.
Employers should ensure workers can take appropriate cooling breaks to allow their core body temperature to go back to normal range.
Proper nourishment and hydration are also crucial in regulating the core body temperature.
Prpic noted, “(WorkSafeBC) had 81 claims accepted for heat stress in 2022 — 58 of those were for outdoor workers and 23 for indoor workers, which is good news over 2021, but still an increase over the last few years.”
Being aware of the symptoms surrounding heat stress, including excess sweating, dizziness, fainting, and muscle cramps, can help prevent heat stroke.
If that sets in, there may be continuous sweating, an increased breathing rate, confusion, seizures, and even cardiac arrest.
Evolving hazards: Avoid hottest part of day
As with any other hazard that is present at a worksite, it is important to be prepared and adjust for changes to the risk, which may occur throughout the day.
These risks don’t only go along with outdoor construction roles, though, as Prpic also noted, “Over the last few years (WorkSafeBC) has seen more and more claims and concerns relating to workers working indoors in a restaurant in a hot restaurant setting or in a factory or a manufacturing plant.”
The idea that temperature can, and likely will, change is important when staying on top of the risks surrounding it.
Especially without adequate HVAC systems to mitigate sustained heat, work schedules in the summer should be more fluid, so that workers are doing hard physical work during the coolest part of the day: before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
Tips for keeping cool
Light, breathable summer clothing should not only be allowed but encouraged, as well as head coverings in direct light. Pairing proper attire with hydration, rest breaks, and communication between employees and supervisors is the best way to ensure that your team stays not only productive but also safe and healthy.
A rough guideline for hydration is to drink one glass of water every 20 minutes.
Workers returning from an absence should have adjusted expectations to allow for a potentially weakened response to heat, and all workers should be trained in proper first aid techniques not only for the industry, but for heat-related illness.
It may be easy to get complacent and think that, if nothing bad has happened yet, nothing bad will happen.
Heat, extreme or otherwise, poses a serious hazard in the workplace and should be monitored to mitigate risk for workers.
Anna Shoultz is a freelance journalist.