Extreme heat is fast becoming the new normal in many areas around the world and, as the mercury rises, so too does the specter of workplace heat stress.
Irrespective of where you live, this growing threat is now impossible to ignore. In 2023, many regions across the globe saw unprecedented temperatures. In fact, this past July registered as the hottest month on record. These temperature extremes can inflict significant impacts within the workplace, whether that’s a drop in productivity, increase in heat-related illness, or most concerning, a rise in fatalities.
So, how can an organization best prepare for and mitigate the dangers of heat stress in the workplace?
In this article, we’ll dive further into the concerns surrounding workplace heat stress, explore the steps firms can take to create an effective heat stress management strategy and look at how technology can ultimately fortify these strategies to enhance overall workplace safety.
Developing an Effective Heat Management Strategy
Having an effective heat management strategy not only enhances workplace productivity but also boosts morale and mitigates the risks associated with rising temperatures. Every organization should consider the following steps when developing its heat management strategy.
Step #1: Conduct A Heat Risk Assessment
A comprehensive heat stress risk assessment is the first step in developing an overall heat management strategy. The assessment aims to identify potential heat stress hazards, evaluate the risk that these hazards create, and establish necessary measures to control exposure. Consider these steps when undertaking your risk assessment:
- Thoroughly examine environmental conditions and climate data, like air temperature, wind patterns, humidity levels, and any distinctive topographical factors. Such as, natural wind barriers or large bodies of water nearby that might influence heat levels and contribute to heat stress risks.
- Next, look at historical heat stress events and incident records from your organization to see if there are any insights that can be drawn from past occurrences. Make note of any corrective measures that were implemented to see how effective they were.
- Identify the workplace, tasks, and working characteristics that could make individuals more susceptible to heat stress. Consider any strenuous activities requiring physical exertion or jobs that require close proximity to heat sources.
- Lastly, consider individual risk factors. For example, workers with underlying health conditions may be at a heightened risk of heat-related illness.
By analyzing all of these factors in unison, organizations can begin to effectively pinpoint potential heat stress hazards and lay the groundwork for implementing the necessary control measures and mitigation strategies to protect their workforce.
Step #2: Implement Corrective & Preventative Measures
Once risk assessments are completed, attention should turn toward implementing the necessary corrective and preventative measures to protect individuals from excessive heat exposures. This approach should focus on the Hierarchy of Controls. When eliminating high temperatures or work tasks in hot conditions isn’t feasible, attention should shift toward
prioritizing the use of engineering controls to manage environmental conditions and mitigate known sources of heat.
Want to learn more? Check out our blog, How Digital Solutions Are Helping Transform the Hierarchy of Controls
Strategies can include installing fans, air curtains and air conditioners, insulating heat sources, establishing temperature-controlled operator booths, and setting up tents and canopies to help protect workers from direct sun exposure. It might include mechanizing some processes, where possible, to reduce strenuous work in hot environments.
Educating workers on the effects of excessive heat exposure, and how to protect themselves is the first step in reducing heat-related harm. Moreover, ensuring workers understand hydration principles and heat acclimatization can help them adapt to high temperatures with fewer risks.
Organizations should also assess the need to adapt work schedules and rest cycles to minimize the risks caused by extreme heat. Breaking up tasks, scheduling strenuous work outside of daytime working hours, and/or implementing worker rotations might be necessary to ensure no worker is overexposed to heat. Leveraging WBGT charts and direct-reading instruments can help organizations recognize when temperatures exceed defined thresholds and implement changes to work/rest cycles, as needed.
Step #3: Monitor and Prepare For Heat Alerts
To effectively manage workplace heat stress, it’s crucial to establish clear protocols for identifying signs of heat-related illnesses and procedures to follow in such cases. Conducting regular drills and practicing response plans ensures everyone is prepared to act swiftly and cohesively during heat-related emergencies.
Furthermore, staying vigilant requires the development of systems to actively monitor weather reports and heat alerts. These systems enable organizations to proactively respond to emerging extreme heat threats. At the same time, well-structured communication plans ensure employees are readily aware of critical information related to high temperatures and heat stress risk.
Leveraging Technology to Improve Heat Stress Management
Technology offers many ways to optimize heat stress management in the workplace, and many organizations are starting to leverage new digital solutions to bolster their health and safety response. Let’s look at a few.
Automated Programming Interfaces (APIs)
APIs are software intermediaries that allow two or more applications to talk with one another and enable stakeholders to exchange data seamlessly across the organization. Using APIs can help organizations significantly reduce the administrative burdens associated with collecting data about heat stress and enabling more real-time updates to risk assessments that can better inform heat management decision-making. Aggregating vast amounts of data can be daunting, but with the help of APIs, this task can be completed quickly and seamlessly.
Wearable technology is another excellent way to leverage tech resources for better heat stress management. These types of tools, such as wearable watches that track heart rate and activity levels, provide personalized heat stress data to workers. This real-time data can offer actionable insights tailored to individual heat risk, guiding employees on reasonable interventions to reduce their risk of heat stress. It’s important to note, however, that the collection of biometric data introduces privacy concerns. If your organization decides to invest in wearables, it is imperative to implement a platform with robust data security, storage, and authorization protocols.
Digital Training Apps
Digitizing heat stress training programs ensures that workers are educated on heat-related risks in the workplace and addresses common language, literacy, and learning barriers. Digital training apps allow employees to control the pace of their learning far more than traditional in-class training approaches. It also enables organizations to structure educational materials to accommodate more diverse language and literacy levels – immensely valuable for a modern, globalized workforce.
The Heat Is On
Effective heat stress management has never been more critical as we navigate a world that’s increasingly characterized by extreme temperatures. A comprehensive heat stress strategy is essential to meeting this challenge, and technology will continue to play a significant role in safeguarding employee health and well-being. By exploring the opportunities now available from technology, organizations may find a new weapon in their arsenal to combat extreme heat, and keep things cool at work.
Interested to learn more? Check out our on-demand webinar, The Heat is On. Where Cority’s Director of Product Marketing, Sean Baldry, CRSP, explores how technology offers EHS professionals new tools to better detect the warning signs of heat stress and how to reduce the risk of heat-related injury and illness.