Protect them from temperature extremes

More than 700 people die of hypothermia each year in the United States and more than 300 die from heat-related illnesses. The numbers are highest in December to January and July. However, there are at least 30 deaths each month related to temperature extremes. Whether or not an electrician faces a hot or cold temperature extreme is independent of season or geographic location. Heat stress can overcome a worker inside a nuclear power plant in Upstate New York during the winter. An electrician inside a refrigeration unit in Arizona needs protection from frostbite and hypothermia. Employers should provide proper protection at all times.

Cold stress

Cold-related illnesses can come over a person slowly or rapidly. Low temperatures are hazardous, but can be extremely dangerous when combined with wind or wet clothing. Frostbite can occur in less than 30 seconds. Hypothermia strikes when land temperatures are above freezing or water temperatures are below 98.6 F or 37 C (normal body temperature).

Employers must take on the responsibility of identifying work conditions that present cold-related hazards and take action to prevent injury. Schedule work to provide minimal exposure. If the weather is dangerously cold, have outdoor work performed during the warmest part of the day. Schedule breaks that allow for time in a warm, dry location. This will not only help to keep employees warm, it will also reduce the potential for fatigue. The body needs energy to keep the muscles warm.

Train employees to recognize cold hazards. They need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cold-induced illnesses and injuries and take action to avoid injury. Use the buddy system to ensure workers can monitor each other for signs that the cold is becoming a problem. Make sure employees know the proper first aid for frostbite and/or hypothermia.

Provide instruction on protective clothing. A hat, a scarf or knit mask to cover face and mouth, sleeves that are snug at the wrist, water-resistant coat and shoes, and several layers of loose-fitting clothing are recommended. The outer layer should be of tightly woven fabric and preferably wind resistant. Wool and silk hold more body heat than cotton. Have employees remove layers of clothing as the temperature allows. Perspiration will increase heat loss. Do not allow an employee to work in extreme temperatures if he or she is not appropriately dressed.

Remember, other factors may affect a worker’s ability to withstand the cold. High-energy foods will help the worker to stay warm. Warm, sweet beverages—sugar water, sports drinks, etc.—and the avoidance of caffeine and alcohol will also help. An employee in poor physical condition, who takes medication, or suffers from illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease is at greater risk.

Heat stress

The body heats up when it works. Perspiration helps to cool the body when it evaporates. Added heat from manufacturing processes or seasonal temperatures increases the danger. High humidity reduces the evaporation rate and compounds the problem. Left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke and possibly death.

Action must be taken to address heat-related hazards. Identify tasks that must be performed in hot and/or high humidity environments. Include the burden of wearing respirators or the heat retention involved in wearing protective suits. Schedule work to minimize the threat. Workers can become acclimated to a higher temperature level. Start off new projects in high temperatures, at a slower pace and gradually increase activity. This usually takes about two weeks. Schedule breaks in cool areas as needed. Perform the heaviest work in the coolest part of the day.

Workers exposed to high temperatures should be made aware of the signs and symptoms of heat-induced illnesses and how to respond. Use the buddy system. Encourage employees to drink water. Explain that alcohol and caffeine make the body lose water. Discourage employees from eating large meals before working in hot environments. Be sure that they know to wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing. Cotton is good.

Physical condition plays a role in the effect temperature has on the body. Have employees check with a healthcare provider or pharmacist about any medication they are taking that may cause problems when working in hot environments. Ask if they have ever experienced a previous heat-induced illness. This can increase their potential for a reoccurrence.

OSHAß has developed a Heat Stress Card Publication #3154 (Spanish Version #3155) and Cold Stress Card Publication #3156 (Spanish Version 3158) for employees. These free cards can be ordered from the OSHA Web site at www.osha.gov. Mail your request to the U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA; OSHA Publications; P.O. Box 37535; Washington, D.C. 20013-7535. Fax a request to 202.693.2498 or call 202.693.1888. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.