As the dog-days of summer approach, it’s time for facility managers to revisit how they address heat-related hazards. Serious injuries and fatalities among contractors in particular spike over the summer months each year, in July and August.
To address these heat-related injuries and illnesses, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established new enhanced measures to protect workers from extreme heat. The organization is launching a National Emphasis program on heat inspections and is developing a rulemaking process to create a workplace heat standard. The agency also plans to form a committee that’s dedicated to better understanding heat-related challenges and sharing best practices for workers.
With respect to these new measures, Duane Duhamel, Health, Safety and Environmental Director at ISN shares how organizations can help keep workers safe during the hottest days of the year.
What are the reasons that serious injuries and fatalities spike among contractors during the summer months?
The most glaring reason for serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) increasing during summer months is that rising temperatures and longer hours due to extended periods of daylight contribute to worker burnout. Performing demanding tasks in high temperatures can potentially result in fatigue, which can reduce physical and cognitive reaction times in workers and can increase the likelihood of a serious incident occurring.
In addition, staffing and workforce dynamics on sites during the summer can also affect SIFs rates. These warmer months are typically when workers will take time off and new temporary workers might be entering the workforce, leading to less tenured employees. Having fewer, more inexperienced workers on site can potentially increase safety risk which leads to higher incident rates.
What are the best practices employers can take to reduce the number of incidents occurring in the summer?
Ensuring workers return home safe every day is an essential part of every HSE initiative. All contractor management organizations should have a regularly updated injury, illness and fatigue prevention program in place. In preparation for hotter months, employers must educate staff on the risk of heat stress and signs of heat-related illness. Organizations should educate their teams on the best heat repellent clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear during summer months. Employees should also be encouraged to take frequent breaks, seek shade when possible, stay hydrated to help cool down during their shifts. These actions can help contractors recover from the heat and continue work during summer months in a safe manner.
Data analysis also plays a critical role in the prevention of SIFs. Understanding the factors contributing to past incidents and near misses can shed light on the context surrounding the SIF, and offer direction to leadership on what actions must be taken to reduce SIFs from occurring in the future. Data analysis allows organizations to focus on processes to identify and eliminate risk factors through key insights that help identify risks specific to an organization and to effectively design reduction strategies.
What are important considerations for OSHA as they consider a proposal for heat illness prevention?
Every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill while working in hot or humid conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Heat Illness Prevention campaign educates employers and workers on the dangers of working in the heat.
With this campaign, it’s important for OSHA to raise the awareness of dangers and offer actionable insights to employers on how to prevent the occurrence of SIFs during the summer until a rule is proposed. With the passing of a rule, OSHA should expand all ongoing inspections to include heat-related hazards. OSHA should not only take into account heat-related hazards on heat priority days or during heat advisories, as the variability of heat can affect individual workers differently.
In the meantime, employers should practice acclimatization of newer workers by scheduling them to work shorter amounts of time in the heat, separated by breaks until they are ready to perform a full schedule. In addition, proper training should be held to ensure that all employees are aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses.
How should organizations be taking these hotter summer months into account for their risk assessments?
It’s critical for organizations to include summer months in their risk assessments by identifying situations that require workers to perform tasks in higher temperature conditions. Identification of environmental hazards such as elevated temperatures, should be included in daily assessment of health and safety risk. To determine if workers are at risk of heat-related illnesses, organizations should consider factors such as the air temperature, humidity levels, exposure to the sun, the availability of PPE and resources to cool down, what equipment is being used, and other conditions that may contribute to a heat-related illness or injury.
Additionally, with the rise in use of third-party contractors to fill in the summer staffing gaps, organizations should have robust training and fit for duty assessments in place to determine the readiness of every single worker.
What role can safety culture play in reducing SIFs?
A key in preventing SIF incidents from occurring not only during the summer, but also year round, is promoting an effective safety culture. A strong safety culture begins with commitment from leadership that ensures all workers return home safely everyday to their families. Identifying and managing workplace hazards is the first step. Implementing written procedures and investing in training and education to protect workers is key. However, in order to truly cultivate a culture of safety, leaders should first understand the current state of their organization’s safety culture.
Leaders should regularly seek and evaluate feedback from frontline workers, who are the individuals closest to the hazards, such as field workers, tradespersons, and supervisors. This process can uncover valuable insights on perceptions and safety culture on the job site, and offer a good reference point for organizations to improve their culture. Empowering individuals to speak up and report issues so that leadership can address them, encourages a culture that works together to actively build safer working environments, and can ultimately help reduce SIFs.
Duhamel is the Corporate Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) Director at ISN, leading and overseeing the HSE RAVS® and Corporate HSE personnel. He has over 22 years of Health, Safety, Environmental, Quality (HSEQ), Sustainability, and Contractor Management experience in the utility, chemical, manufacturing, aerospace, and energy industries. His roles provide expertise in the United States, Canada and International HSE regulations. Duhamel holds a Master’s in Business Administration, Master’s Degree in Occupational Health and Safety and is a Registered Safety Professional.