It’s no surprise Texas claimed five of the top six spots on a list of “hottest hottest cities in the United States.” But to be clear, our summers aren’t hot. Conditions between June and September are better described as sweltering, sizzling, or scorching.
Summer also happens to be when school floors are stripped and waxed, classrooms are deep-cleaned, and straggling work orders are tackled. Heat, humidity, and physical work can collide and cause heat stress in employees tasked with preparing facilities for the fall semester.
Heat stress at a glance
One July morning, a 42-year-old roofer told his family goodbye and left for his third day on the job. His employer provided plenty of water, ice, and sports drinks at the site. What they didn’t provide was a formal safety plan.
That afternoon, the man told his co-workers he felt hot and sick. He later died of heat stroke.
Heat stroke is the deadliest form of heat-related stress. Heat stress happens when temperature and humidity prevent sweat from evaporating. The body can’t cool itself, so our core temperature rises. Symptoms can include thirst, fatigue, cramps, skin irritation, confusion, nausea, and tragically, death.
It’s getting hot(ter) out here!
Heat stress consistently leads the pack when it comes to weather-related fatalities. If a 2020 Texas A&M study is accurate, no relief is in sight for the Lone Star State.
The study notes the number of 100-degree days in Texas has more than doubled during the past 40 years. That figure could double again by 2036, largely because of climate change.
Core elements of heat stress safety plans
Strong safety plans are built on documented procedures communicated across the organization. Your heat stress safety plan should give employees the information and resources they need to protect themselves and each other.
Teach employees how to do their specific jobs safely, understand heat stress risk factors such as age and weight, recognize the signs of heat stress, and respond appropriately to emergencies. Have supervisors start the workday with a quick “tailgate meeting” to remind employees about safety procedures.
Pro tip: Create a buddy system, where employees work in pairs, reminding each other to work safely and monitoring their buddy for heat stress. Buddy systems are especially important for new employees, who are more likely to get injured on the job.
Between 50 and 70 percent of heat stress fatalities happen during the first few days of hot weather, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Acclimatization allows the body to gradually adjust to heat and humidity.
Examples of acclimatization strategies include gradually increasing workloads and scheduling more-physical work during cooler times of the day.
Consider applying acclimatization strategies for:
- All employees before summer weather ramps up
- New employees who aren’t used to working in heat and humidity
- Current employees returning from extended leave or working in hot environments for the first time
Pro tip: Look beyond the thermometer to gauge heat stress risk. The heat index, which combines temperature and humidity, reflects how hot it feels. Remember that heat index doesn’t account for wind, sunlight, heat-producing equipment, or workload.
Water, rest, shade
OSHA’s annual heat safety campaign underscores the importance of three simple, powerful preventative measures:
Water. Employees should drink at least 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes while working in the heat, even if they’re not thirsty, according to OSHA.
Rest/Shade. Regularly scheduled breaks in cooler areas such as in the shade, a tent, an area with misters and fans, or an air-conditioned trailer give the body time to cool down. If cooler areas aren’t available, breaks should last longer. Make it clear that skipping breaks violates district policy.
Related content: Accidents happen, even in the safest workplaces. Make sure your teams know how to respond to injuries this summer.
One summer in Texas is all it takes to understand that choosing proper clothing and equipment is critical:
- Loose, lightweight cotton clothing allows sweat to evaporate. Light-colored clothing absorbs less heat than dark colors, and a lightweight hat with a good brim shields the sun.
- Budget-friendly equipment such as sunglasses, reflective clothing, cooling neck wraps, and sunscreen protect employees from the sun and harmful UV rays.
- If you want to invest a little more in your team’s well-being, consider canopies, non-conductive umbrellas, misting fans, and cooling vests.
Indoor employee safety
Employees who work in food service areas, maintenance rooms, boiler rooms, and other areas where heat-generating equipment is housed are also at risk. Make sure their workspaces are cooled and/or ventilated:
- Use general ventilation, cooling fans, and evaporative cooling when possible.
- Install protective shields around heat-producing equipment.
- Eliminate steam leaks.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel
Credible regulatory agencies offer tools in a variety of formats for safety-conscious employers. Consider using these free resources to protect your employees from heat stress this summer:
As always, our risk solutions consultants are here to help members identify and manage workplace hazards, including summer heat. Reach out anytime you need guidance, training, or resources.
Explore more summer risks
Heat illness is not the only risk facing schools during the summer. Use our risk management checklist to builld a comprehensive action plan that protects your productivity, your budget, and most importantly, your staff and students.