Protecting Workers Against Heat Illness

July 2023
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Millions of hardworking Americans clock into their jobs day after day, battling an invisible enemy that's as relentless as it is pervasive. It's not a demanding boss or a tight deadline... It's something far more insidious.


Every year, thousands of workers fall ill due to occupational heat exposure, and in some cases, the outcome is fatal. The kicker? It's all preventable.

Imagine stepping into a new job, and within the first few days, you're hit with the most formidable challenge. That's the reality for many workers in warm or hot environments, where 50% to 70% of outdoor fatalities occur in the initial days.


Because our bodies need time to build a tolerance to the heat, a process known as heat acclimatization. Without this, the risk of fatal outcomes skyrockets.

Heat doesn't care if you're working indoors or outdoors or if it's summer or winter. It's an equal opportunity offender. From the sun-soaked fields of agriculture to the blistering heat of iron and steel mills, from the cozy confines of kitchens and laundries to the fiery depths of boiler rooms, heat-related illnesses can affect workers in both indoor and outdoor environments.

Our bodies have a built-in cooling system: heat dissipation. When we're active in a warm environment, our bodies naturally try to shed excess heat through sweating and increased blood flow to the skin. But if the external heat and physical activity outpace our body's cooling efforts, the internal body temperature continues to rise. This can trigger a domino effect of symptoms, from thirst and irritability to heat exhaustion and, in severe cases, heat stroke.

Occupational Heat Stroke Dangers

Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat-related illness, marked by mental dysfunction such as unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation, or slurred speech.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature
  • Fatal if treatment delayed

If you encounter a worker displaying these symptoms, it's time to hit the panic button. Cool them immediately and call 911!

Take the following steps to treat a worker with heat stroke:

  • Call 911 for emergency medical care.
  • Stay with the worker until emergency medical services arrive.
  • Move the worker to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing.
  • Cool the worker quickly, with cool water, cold wet clothes on the skin, or by soaking with cool water
  • Circulate the air around the worker to speed cooling.
  • Place cold wet cloths or ice on the head, neck, armpits, and groin; or soak the clothing with cool water.

Heat Illness is a Serious Problem

The factors contributing to occupational heat exposure are as varied as they are numerous. From physical activity and air temperature to clothing that hampers the body's ability to lose excess heat to individual risk factors, it's a complex equation. It's up to management to solve this problem and assess the presence of a heat hazard in the workplace.

Some workers are more susceptible to heat-related illness due to personal risk factors such as medical conditions, lack of physical fitness, alcohol consumption, and certain medications. It's crucial for management to commit to preventing heat-related illness for all employees, regardless of their heat tolerance levels.

Preventing heat-related illness isn't just about keeping workers safe; it's also about keeping businesses thriving. Heat stress can cause fine motor performance to deteriorate, even in acclimatized individuals, leading to decreased performance and lost productivity.

But with management's commitment to providing effective controls, heat-related illness is entirely preventable.

Heat Illness Prevention in the Workplace

An effective heat-related illness prevention program should be woven into the fabric of a broader safety and health program. Workers new to warm or hot environments should be encouraged to hydrate, work shorter shifts, take frequent breaks, and quickly identify any heat illness symptoms.

OSHA recommends employers create a heat illness prevention plan that includes:

Engineering controls such as air conditioning and increased airflow can make the workplace safer. Tweaking workload and schedules, such as reducing manual handling speeds or scheduling work for cooler parts of the day, can also help keep body temperatures down. Supervisors should encourage workers to stay hydrated and provide training about heat-related symptoms and first aid.

In the battle against the unseen enemy of heat, your weapons are knowledge, vigilance, and proactive measures. Remember, the best defense against heat-related illness is prevention. Prioritize water, rest, and shade in our workplaces, ensuring a safer, healthier, and more productive environment for all.

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