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8 Practical Ways to Plan for and Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses

Amanda Rawls /

I’m from Texas. And Texas gets hot, particularly in the summer months between May and September, when temperatures sometimes exceed 100º F. This kind of extreme heat can cause workers to suffer from heat-related illnesses.

OSHA pays close attention to heat illness, especially when a case results in hospitalization. Since 2019 the DOL has reported 69 fatalities from heat-related illnesses.

OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires every employer to provide “a place of employment … free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” Those recognized hazards include—you guessed it—soaring temperatures.

On top of that, 28 states have plans (such as CalOSHA) that meet or exceed OSHA’s hazard mitigation requirements. Some states have specific regulations regarding working in the heat.

Here are some practical ways to plan for and prevent heat-related illnesses.

1. Know the signs.

There are two common kinds of heat-related illness: heat exhaustion and heatstroke. While both call for prompt action, the latter is a medical emergency. Understanding the difference may be a matter of life and death.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include…

  • faintness/dizziness
  • excessive sweating
  • cool and clammy skin
  • nausea/vomiting
  • rapid and weak pulse
  • muscle cramps

Symptoms of heatstroke include…

  • throbbing headache
  • lack of sweat
  • body temperature above 103º F
  • hot and dry skin
  • nausea/vomiting
  • rapid and strong pulse
  • possible loss of consciousness

Either of these illnesses can strike easier than you think. While people working outdoors in extreme heat are the most susceptible to heat illness, it can affect people indoors as well. In fact, the radiant heat in some indoor environments—such as metal fabrication shops—can exceed outdoor temperatures. Keep in mind that people frequently overestimate their limits and their ability to continue working in the heat. They may not know they’re in trouble before it’s too late.

2. Know the risks. 

All of the following can factor into heat illness risk:

  • current temperature and humidity
  • the use (or non-use) of personal protective equipment
  • the time of day
  • exertion—i.e. the activity level a task demands
  • direct sunlight/shade

Also, make sure your team is acclimated to working in the heat. The one heat fatality we dealt with in Texas was someone who left work in May due to an injury and returned in June. It was hotter and he wasn’t used to it. Day 1 back was OK but the next day he suffered heat stroke because he was overworking his body when it was already tired and not acclimated. It can take days not hours to get back to your normal work load.

3. Familiarize yourself with the National Weather Service Heat Index.

The NWS Heat Index is a valuable measurement tool for heat-related workforce risk. The scale ranges from 80º F and 40% humidity (defined as the low end of “Caution”) to 110ºF and 100% humidity (far into “Extreme Danger” territory).

4. Identify heat illness management controls. 

Think back to the Heirarchy of Controls we’ve discussed in the past. The greater the danger on the NWS Heat Index, the more protective measures employers should take.

Those measures may include any or all of the following:

  • more time for acclimation
  • additional safety briefs
  • additional water sources
  • hydrating snacks and drinks (e.g. popsicles, sports drinks, fruit)
  • periodic hydration reminders
  • additional shade (e.g. with tents)
  • faster job rotation
  • mandatory sunscreen applications
  • more frequent breaks
  • cooling equipment and clothing (e.g. hard hat cooling inserts and evaporative cooling vests)
  • large fans

In any case, always make sure adequate medical services are available and be ready to stop and reschedule work as necessary. At certain temperatures, no task is worth the risk.

5. Take humidity seriously.

Relative humidity is a measure of the amount of moisture in the air. Sweat does not evaporate as quickly in a moist environment as it does in a dry climate. Because evaporation of sweat from the skin is one of the ways the human body cools itself on a hot day, high humidity reduces our natural cooling potential, causing us to feel hotter. Low humidity can also be a problem for outdoor workers in hot, desert-like climates. Sweat evaporates rapidly in low humidity, which can lead to severe dehydration when a person doesn’t drink enough water throughout the day.

6. Think indoors, too.

Heat illness can anywhere. Based on where you do business, your organization may be on the hook for indoor as well as outdoor conditions. California, for instance, is finalizing a heat illness prevention rule that would apply to indoor work areas where temperatures exceed 82° F. Many of the same precautions as outdoor environments apply to indoor settings. Keep in mind that architectural aspects, such as reflective shields and insulation, can impact a building’s internal temperature.

7. Create a heat illness prevention team.

Designate people within your organization as heat safety leaders. Members of the team should be responsible for reporting, monitoring conditions, managing response protocols, implementing controls at each risk level, and ensuring the availability of supplies and equipment.

8. Educate your employees.

Employees should be trained to recognize symptoms of heat-related illnesses, on what to do when symptoms are observed, and on site-specific risks and controls. In addition to their personal heat illness prevention choices, such as water intake and clothing, members of your workforce also need to be aware of their individual risk factors, including age, medications, obesity, diet, smoking habits, and medical conditions. 

These 8 strategies may seem like a lot of work, but they’re easy to implement in any organization with a strong safety culture and workforce management system in place. When you work with KPA, we’ll help you with both. See how we can keep you and your employees cool—in more ways than one.

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