By Rayan Omer
Managing a small business nowadays is like playing chess with destiny. Owners are balancing dual considerations, especially during the summer months. On one side, employers must comply with the protective guidelines related to the Coronavirus, such as operating outdoors, keeping a 6-feet distance, wearing masks, and sanitization. Furthermore, employers must also protect their employees from the rising heat of the weather.
As summer continues across the world, many U.S. workers are prone to high temperatures, and in some cases, heat waves. Heat waves can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses for workers, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. According to the Washington Post, nearly 90 percent of work-related deaths caused by environmental exposure to heat occur between the months of May and September.
According to Public Citizen, a survey conducted by the nonprofit organization Climate Central, more sweltering summer days are coming. The number of dangerous hot days is likely to increase for 133 U.S. cities, where they experience an average of 20 dangerous days per year which will skyrocket to 58 days by 2050. According to Climate Central, the National Weather Service defined a dangerous day as a heat index of 105°F or higher.
Under the general clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), employers are required to provide their workers a place of employment that "is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." Even though OSHA does not have a specific law regarding the hot weather, a recognized hazard includes working in a heat excessive worksite. According to Chron, to protect employees from uncomfortable temperatures, OSHA recommends owners to keep thermostats between 68 and 78 degrees.
How Hot is Too Hot?
We react differently to heat depending on what our body is accustomed to. For instance, a new worker coming from Nebraska state might see California’s summer weather as just fine. Conversely, an employee who lived in California might find Nebraska’s weather to be a much hotter climate. To provide an example in numbers, a 75-degree Fahrenheit worksite might be comfortable to one worker, but unbearable for another employee.
According to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the heat index combines the air temperature and relative humidity into a single value. The chart shows the apparent temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. The higher the heat index, the greater the risk for outdoor workers to experience heat-related illness.
What is Heat Illness?
Our bodies need to adapt gradually to increased temperature; otherwise, we are at a higher risk for heat stress injuries. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists in 1989 defined stress as “the total net head load on the body.”
OSHA has recognized six heat stress disorders, including the most serious heat-related illness of them all ---a heat stroke. Other major heat injuries that happen are heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and last but not least, a heat rash.
First, heat stroke happens when your body is unable to regulate its core temperature. It happens when we stay in high temperature environments or do physical activity in hot weather for prolonged periods of time. Usually, when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the body is unable to get rid of excess heat via sweat, which causes a heat stroke. Symptoms of this illness include confusion, seizures, and loss of consciousness.
Second, heat exhaustion happens when our body is reacting to the loss of water and salt from its system. Heavy sweat causes the evaporation of water and salt from the body. Signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, dizziness, thirst, headaches and heavy sweating.
Third, even though heat cramps are a less serious illness, they are still painful. It’s an involuntary muscle spasm that occurs due to the low salt levels in the muscle.
Finally, heat rash is when your skin gets irritated due to sweat. Generally, sweat evaporates but excessive sweat can cause irritation, which makes a person scratch their skin frequently, risking open skin wounds. For more information about heat-illnesses, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some employers might not take heat-illnesses seriously. Judy Chu, a democratic congresswoman from California, introduced the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2019, which directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue and enforce standards to protect workers from heat-related risks on the job.
Chu said to the Guardian that her advocacy started from when she was in the California state assembly: “The United Farm Workers came to me about the situation with Asuncion Valdivia. He was a farmworker picking grapes for 10 hours straight when he collapsed in 105 degree temperatures. Instead of having any kind of proper treatment for him, a supervisor told his son to take him home. They didn’t even call an ambulance. On the way home, the son saw his father foam at the mouth, fall over and die. So the son had to watch his father die of a preventable heat stroke.” To prevent tragic stories, like the one Chu mentioned, it’s critical to take heat-illnesses seriously.
Provide your employees with training regarding prevention measures of heat-illnesses. According to the Employers, only 52 percent of small businesses conduct safety training for new workers hired in the summer. If new hires get injured during work hours, even though they are seasonal workers, they might still qualify under worker’s compensation. Hence, it’s important to provide prevention training.
Educate your employees about the risks of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. For example, when you forget your phone outside on a hot day, you’ll find that your phone has shut down due to the rising heat. Thus, our bodies do the same, a person can become unconscious if they stay too long in a hot climate.
Employers should make changes in their worksite to accommodate the weather conditions. The guidance includes:
Shade breaks: Advise and monitor your employees to frequently take shade breaks.
Hydration stations: Have water stations close by and encourage your employees to keep themselves hydrated.
Decrease workload: Before their bodies acclimate to the high temperatures, employers should decrease the workload for their employees. Working suddenly in a hot climate before giving our body time to regulate the temperature causes a high risk of heat illnesses. Therefore, employers should increase the workload gradually on hot days.
Screening: Employers can have a screening program set in place, or encourage workers to self-identify health conditions that could potentially be exacerbated by elevated temperatures, provided that the screening is subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Lighter dress code: Small business owners should advise their employees to wear lighter clothing and adjust the dress code to match the hot weather.
Ventilate the worksite: Owners should increase air circulation in the workplace, whether it’s turning on the fans, the air conditioner, or simply keeping the door open.
Change work locations: If it’s possible to do so, employers should transition the employees’ work locations to a shaded area in order to prevent prolonged sun exposure.
Personal Risk Factors
Workers handle heat stress differently. Employers should be cautious of personal risk factors. According to OSHA, some high risk conditions include diabetes, obesity, heart disease, the use of certain medications, and alcohol use. Additionally, it’s recommended that employees who are susceptible to heat-illnesses, due to their risk factors, speak with their healthcare provider before returning to work.
Provide First Aid
It’s important to notice the symptoms of heat-illnesses. I mentioned above some of the signs of different types of heat diseases, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat rash, and finally heat cramps.
If you notice any of your workers is excessively sweating, has lost consciousness, or seems confused, it’s important to act fast by cooling the worker and calling 911 when in doubt. Trying to self-diagnose which heat-illness occurred would only cause delay in treatment. For example, heat stroke illnesses left untreated could get worse and be fatal to the worker.
First aid standards include taking the worker to a cool place immediately and placing cold wet towels over the worker’s head, neck, under their armpits and their groin.
Remove any unnecessary outer cloth, especially protective gear or tight clothing. Do not leave the employee alone without supervision under any circumstances because his condition might suddenly get worse. Finally, a fan could be used to circulate the air and cool the worker from the excess heat.
It’s crucial for small business owners to take heat-illness seriously, otherwise they risk losing their employees. I don’t only mean losing employees in a figurative way, where workers quit their jobs, but also where the illness could cause death or serious injury.
OSHA has some case studies of such catastrophic incidents. For example:
“A 42-year-old man started a new job as a roofer. His employer did not have a formal plan to protect new workers from heat-related illness although there was plentiful water, ice, and Gatorade available at the site. The worker felt fine during his first two days of work. His third day on the job was slightly warmer, with a high temperature of about 86°F and relative humidity of 57%, for a heat index of 90°F. In the afternoon, the worker told his co-workers he felt hot and sick. He climbed down from the roof and went to sit by himself in the sun. When his co-workers checked on him a few minutes later, he had symptoms of heat stroke. He was taken to a hospital where he died. Scattered clouds may have reduced the radiant temperature somewhat, but reconstruction showed a wet-bulb globe temperature of 82°F based on data from a nearby airport.”
These incidents can be prevented by taking precautions and action to protect your employees. If employees are not provided with a safe working environment, they may also just quit because uncomfortable working conditions where people don’t feel valued and appreciated will lead to losing your staff.
Additionally, not complying with OSHA’s general clause, in providing a safe workplace, causes potential legal issues for the employer. For example, an employee who gets injured during working hours can have a valid claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act. As a small business owner with a tight budget amidst the Coronavirus era, this is not the time for lawsuits. Also, an owner risks not having a good reputation for treating his employees well, which is also bad for business.
Furthermore, other legal issues include when a worker files a complaint to OSHA that might trigger an inspection of the site. If the complaint is valid, the employer is likely to be fined for violating the OSHA rules.
In summary, it’s hard for small business owners to keep running their businesses during the COVD-19 pandemic. There are many safety regulations to comply with. Adding to the Coronavirus safety measures is the summer heat, which adds another layer of protection needed by employees.
It’s vital for small business owners to take care of their staff. Heat-illnesses are serious and could be life threatening to some workers. Provide training and guidelines for the staff to protect themselves from the heat by wearing light weighted cloth, drinking plenty of water, wearing protective shade equipment, and finally taking regular breaks.
My silver lining is that as summer passes, the Coronavirus will eventually be gone just like any other major disease that came before it. But, your employees will never forget how you made them feel.
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