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Heat Stress & Related Injuries Amid COVID-19

Warmer weather may be welcomed as we find new ways to get out while still social distancing, but it creates serious concerns for workers. These include increased risks of:

  • Heat stress and related injuries for those who perform work in hot environments or outdoors during hot summer months.
  • Occupational illnesses and injuries such as heat stroke, fainting, heat exhaustion, cramps, and rashes.
  • Workplace accidents caused by sweaty hands and slippery surfaces (falls and falling objects), obscured vision caused by foggy eyewear, dizziness, and burn injuries caused by contact with hot surfaces.

What Is Heat Stress and Which Workers Face The Greatest Risks?

Heat stress is a combination of a worker’s exposure to heat from multiple sources, including the environment (hot and sunny days), physical activity (manual labor), and clothing that increases the body’s heat storage (known as “net heat load”).

When a worker is under heat stress, their body will work to increase heat loss in order to maintain a stable core body temperature (about 98.6˚), a physiological response known as heat strain. In addition to the factors above, the body’s ability to maintain normal temperature can be impacted by the speed of air moving over the body, humidity, air temperature, direct sunlight, clothing, hydration, and other factors unique to a person and their physical health.

When heat strain is unrelieved, workers face greater risks of heat-related illnesses. That’s particularly concerning for those who work in hot environments, such as firefighters, miners, and factory workers, and those who perform manual labor outdoors, such as landscapers, masons, or roadway workers. Workers with pre-existing medical conditions or who are over 65, overweight, or have high blood pressure or heart disease are also more susceptible to heat stress.

Though excessive heat isn’t good for any worker, construction workers face some of the greatest risks for heat-related illnesses. That’s because:

  • Construction work is labor intensive and can cause the body to generate excessive heat.
  • Construction workers often perform their jobs outdoors during the hottest times of year.
  • Many construction workers must work in non-climate controlled spaces such as crawlspaces or attics, or in direct sunlight on roofs and roadways.
  • Some construction jobs require workers to use or be near sources of extreme heat, including welding, hot mopping, roofing, and asphalt paving.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 285 construction workers died as a result of heat-related injuries between 1992 and 2016. That’s more than a third of all occupational deaths caused by heat exposure nationwide. Experts say those numbers follow an upward trend due to increases in average summer temperatures.

Attorney David Perecman recently wrote about the risks associated with heat exposure and climate change in an article published by Westlaw. You can read the full article here.

Heat Stress & Face Masks: Understanding Risks

From ensuring compliance with new and evolving regulations to adopting new processes and policies aimed at protecting workers’ health, COVID-19 and the new normal in American workplaces have created many challenges. As we enter the summer months, however, experts have become particularly concerned about workplace risks associated with the use of masks – which are recommended by the CDC, and required by some local and state governments.

While researchers and health organizations resoundingly agree on the efficacy of wearing masks to protect against transmission of the coronavirus, face coverings can also pose some risks of their own:

  • Spotting Heat Illness Symptoms: Wearing masks and social distancing can create challenges when it comes to recognizing some signs of heat-related illnesses, including dizziness, excessive sweating, heat rash, slurred speech, and confusion or altered mental state.
  • Increased Discomfort: Some studies suggest certain face masks, including N95 masks, may increase thermal temperature around the nose, mouth, and cheeks, increase breathing resistance and heart rate, and cause discomfort for some individuals – factors that can potentially exacerbate a worker’s response to heat exposure.
  • Breathing Resistance: Some experts have expressed concern over breathing resistance created by masks, which can cause greater activation of respiratory muscles and shortness of breath, both of which can result in faster build-up of heat within the body.

Prevention: Tips To Avoid Heat Stress And COVID-19 Exposure

Balancing risks of COVID-19 exposure and heat stress amid the pandemic may be challenging for employers and employees alike, but it is not an insurmountable task. With proper precautions and a prioritization on safety, employers can keep their workers safe during the summer months while still maintaining compliance with OSHA guidance for reducing COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.

Key Precautions for Employers:

  • Encourage frequent breaks and worker hydration.
  • Schedule jobs for cooler parts of the day or year and / or alternate hot jobs every other day.
  • Regulate temperature in working environments or provide shaded or air-conditioned rest areas.
  • Provide cold drinking water (with individual cups) and large containers of cool water for workers to immerse their hand / arms and reduce skin and core temperatures.
  • Expand crews to allow workers to rest more often, or use staggered schedules to reduce the numbers of workers on a site at one time and allow for workers to remove their masks when safely secluded from other.
  • Adjust work / rest schedules as temperatures, humidity, and sunshine increase, or for work that requires protective clothing / PPE or is more physically demanding.
  • Use equipment and tools to reduce physical workload (i.e. a backhoe instead of picks and shovels).
  • Develop plans to acclimatize workers to heat by gradually increasing time in hot environments over 1-2 weeks rather than sudden long-duration exposure.
  • Limit new workers’ time working in heat, and monitor experienced workers’ heat exposure.
  • Create a heat alert, education, and training program, and have procedures in place to respond to potential injuries.
  • Adopt a “buddy system” so workers can report when their partner may be experiencing heat stress. Amid COVID-19 and mask wearing, the CDC suggests that the buddy system may have to rely more on workers asking one another questions rather than observing symptoms.
  • Provide a fresh supply of masks so workers can exchange sweat-soaked masks with dry masks, which can improve their ability to breathe.

Tips For Workers:

  • Prepare and plan ahead by bringing what you’ll need to jobs that require you to work outside in the heat, including sun protection, plenty of water, gloves, and other gear that can help you keep cool and cool off.
  • Recognize the early signs of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and other heat-related illnesses, including confusion, altered mental state, headache, dizziness / nausea, fatigue, weakness, heavy sweating, and elevated body temperature.
  • Take frequent breaks and drink lots of water, especially when performing more strenuous work or when temperatures increase. After experiencing symptoms of heat illness, slowly drink water, clear juice, or a sports drink while you rest in a cool place.
  • Cool your body temperature down during breaks by going indoors, to a shaded or air-conditioned rest area, or submersing your hand or arms into cool water.
  • Speak with your doctor about any medications that may put you at higher risk of heat-related illness, including medications that may cause dehydration.
  • Listen to your body’s warning signs, and do not attempt to push through dangerous symptoms simply to finish a job.
  • If you or a fellow work feel unwell, report to your employer, or seek medical attention. Although some workers may avoid hospitals amid fears of COVID-19, serious cases of heat-related illness can be fatal. Get proper medical attention as soon as it’s needed.

You can learn more about the signs of heat-related illness and first aid from the U.S. CDC and find more helpful warm weather work safety tips on our blog.

The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C.: Proven Advocates for Injured Workers

The Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C. is proud to support the working men and women who help keep New York City moving. As a firm that’s advocated for workers’ rights, secured legal victories that have helped shape NY Labor Law, and won millions in compensation for injured workers and their families, we encourage you to learn more about heat stress and implement a few simple precautionary measures that can keep you and those around you safe.

Of course, our firm is well aware that injuries on the job still happen even when workers take all precautions they can. When employers, contractors, or premises owners are negligent, the risks of serious injuries and the physical, financial, and emotional strains that can accompany them only increase.

If you or your loved one have suffered a heat-related illness or another injury while on the job, you may have the right to pursue a workers’ compensation or personal injury lawsuit. Our award-winning attorneys can help you explore options for recovering the compensation you need following any type of construction accident or workplace injury.

Our firm has recovered more than half a billion for our clients, and is readily available to help you via phone, video conference, or e-mail. To request a free case evaluation, call or contact us online.

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