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Beat the Heat: Heat Illness Safety & Prevention

With summer quickly approaching, there is an increased risk of heat illness for employees who are exposed to working conditions in high temperatures. Heat illness refers to any serious ailment caused by too much heat. This includes heat exhaustion, cramps, and heat strokes. Both employers and employees need to be (a) aware of the dangers and early signs of heat illness, (b) knowledgeable about how to prevent it, (c) aware of helpful OSHA tools, and (d) prepared to take action if necessary. Kate Roesing, Director at De Novo HRConsulting works with clients to assess work hazards and minimize risk. She states, “Prevention is imperative; nonetheless, if you have identified that an employee has been overexposed to extreme temperatures, it’s important to respond swiftly and appropriately.”


Working in extreme heat or in hot environments can lead to an increased incidence of workplace injury. Employees who are exhibiting symptoms of heat illness may not be performing their jobs at the proper level, which can not only lead to personal injury, but can jeopardize the safety of those around them.

To that end, it is important to educate your employees on the early signs of minor and major heat illness. For minor heat illness, the most common symptoms are:

  • Skin Rashes

  • Skin Irritation

  • Cramps

  • Increased Thirst

  • Dark Urine

For major heat illness, such as heat stroke, symptoms include:

  • Mental dysfunction

  • Slurred Speech

  • Disorientation

  • Unconsciousness


The first step in preventing heat illness is heat acclimatization. Simply put, this is allowing individuals to build up a tolerance for heat over time. OSHA reports that 50-70% of outdoor workplace fatalities occur within the first few days of working in warm or hot environments, so giving workers time to acclimate to the temperature is important. Employees should be encouraged to keep water or a sports drink close by to stay hydrated throughout their shifts. Bananas are a prudent food choice to supplement the intake of liquids because of their high potassium content, as potassium lost through sweat can lead to heat illness.

OSHA has four key recommendations for all employers:

  • Plan to schedule workers for shorter shifts with frequent breaktimes during the acclimation period.

  • Provide workers with water, rest, and shade.

  • Monitor workers for signs of illness.

  • Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention.

Just like other illnesses, some people are at a higher risk than others due to various personal factors such as previous heat illness, alcohol and/or drug use, and being physically out of shape. Employers should educate employees on these risk factors so that they can take control of their own health. There are also job specific risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a heat related illness. These include clothing that prevents heat dissipation, manmade heat sources (road surfaces, furnaces, ovens), and the absence of air conditioning. Identify the risk factors that apply to your worksite, including both indoor and outdoor facilities, given that risks exist in both environments.


OSHA requires employers to provide an environment free of any recognized hazards for their employees, with extreme heat qualifying as a “recognized hazard.” OSHA has made the following tools available to aid in the preparation of an action plan for heat illness.

  • OSHA provides tables that quantify various heat factors. Some examples of these tables are the level of physical activity compared to metabolic rate, simplified heat exposure recommendations, and a clothing adjustment table.

  • The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety tool is an app that can be downloaded onto a smart phone. This app can determine the heat index of your current location. The heat index is “the measure of how hot it feels when relative humidity is taken into account along with the actual air temperature.” With this information, the app will tell you which risks are at an increased level due to your location and how to combat them. It also provides signs of illness along with first aid information tailored to your working conditions.


Employers are responsible for monitoring the workplace for any source of increased risk along with making sure all employees are not experiencing any signs of heat illness. But, despite your best efforts, things can still go wrong, so there should be a clearly understood emergency plan. If an employee is affected by a heat related illness, the following steps should be taken:

  • Move the employee to a cooler area.

  • Loosen any tight clothing.

  • Apply cooling towels to the face, neck, chest, and extremities.

  • Provide water or sports drinks to be consumed slowly every 15 minutes.

Note that in some circumstances it will be appropriate to contact Emergency Medical Services (EMS) without delay.

Employers must provide a safe working environment for their workers. Awareness, training, prevention, and response plans will help to reduce the risk of heat illness. If your organization needs a review of your Heat Illness Safety and Prevention program, or any other health and safety program, contact us at or call us at 610-340-1170.

Disclaimer: The information shared above is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.


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