Heat kills. Every year workers die from heat stroke and thousands more are hospitalized for various types of heat stress. Heat stress, or heat illness, includes a variety of heat-related ailments—heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, heat syncope (fainting or dizziness), and the most dangerous, heat stroke. Many heat-related deaths and illnesses are completely preventable.
Hawaii employers are typically resilient and skilled when it comes to minimizing the impact of our sunny, humid weather on workers. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommendations to provide water, rest and shade are the norm and following them significantly minimizes heat illness.
Although OSHA regulations don’t specifically mention heat stress, their General Duty Clause allows them to cite employers for exposing workers to dangerous conditions, including hot environments.
As global warming continues to cause higher air and ocean temperatures in the Hawaiian Islands, extreme weather events like heatwaves have become increasingly common. Ongoing vigilance against heat-related illnesses is required.
Stay informed about extreme heat
The weather in Hawaii is frequently low on the heat index, but several variables should be taken into account. Supervisors should check the weather forecast and make sure safety plans are in place before work begins.
Highly developed parts of Honolulu may experience the urban heat island effect, where temperatures are several degrees higher than in surrounding areas. Especially when trade winds are weak and/or work is in direct sun, ensure that additional precautions are taken.
Know the risk factors for heat illness
Outdoor workers doing strenuous labor while wearing heavy protective gear are especially susceptible to heat illness. No surprise there. Supervisors should ensure that workers are dressed in light-colored clothing, acclimated to working in hot weather, and following guidelines for water, rest, and shade.
Other factors that increase the risk of heat stress include alcohol and drug use; cardiovascular, respiratory, neurologic, and psychiatric conditions; obesity; medications including antihistamines and blood pressure pills; and advanced age (65+).
Mitigate symptoms of heat stress
Even when precautions are taken, heat-related illness can strike suddenly. Heat-related fatalities are not uncommon but in many cases, they are preventable. According to the Hawai‘i Journal of Medicine and Public Health, the most crucial aspects of managing heat illness are early recognition and cooling.
Make sure that your entire team has training on how to recognize signs of heat stress. While waiting for medical assistance, you can take immediate steps to assist in cooling down victims of heat illness.
Additional Resources for Preventing Heat-Related Illness