Extreme temperatures can pose a significant threat to the wellbeing of workers in Illinois. According to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), anyone who works in an extremely hot or cold environment is at risk for heat or cold stress. While outdoor workers are commonly associated with suffering from the effects of very hot or cold temperatures, indoor workers who are exposed to extreme conditions are vulnerable as well.
Extreme Cold and Worker Injuries
Illinois workers who are exposed to extremely cold conditions are at risk for suffering from a variety of cold weather-related illnesses and injuries. When the proper steps are not taken to protect workers from the effects of a very cold environment, a dangerous situation can develop very quickly. Three main factors that contribute to cold-related hazards are:
- Dampness/Wetness: When a worker is exposed to dampness in the air, rain, sweat, or submersion in water, his or her body temperature can drop very rapidly. In fact, although hypothermia is more common at colder temperatures, when conditions are wet it can even develop at cool temperatures above 40 degrees.
- Wind Speed: The combination of air temperature and movement is known as wind chill. The lower the temperature and the higher the speed of the wind, the greater the danger.
- Exhaustion and Predisposing Health Conditions: An individual in poor health or suffering from exhaustion is more vulnerable to the effects of the cold. Since cold temperatures force the body to work harder to maintain body heat, the extra exertion can cause heart problems, poor circulation, and other adverse health problems.
Protection From the Effects of Cold Weather
Fortunately there are a number of precautions that can be taken to help ensure workers are protected from the effects of cold weather. According to OSHA, wearing multiple layers of weather appropriate clothing (waterproof if necessary), drinking an abundance of warm liquids, avoiding alcoholic beverages, and consuming a nutritional diet can help a worker’s body fight off the effects of the cold. Additionally, workers who are exposed to extremely cold temperatures should take frequent breaks to warm up and they should keep an extra set of clothing on hand in case they get wet and need to change.
Extreme Heat and Worker Injuries
Extremely hot temperatures can be just as dangerous to workers as the cold. Prolonged work in very hot environments can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, breakdown of muscle tissue, and even death. Each year, over three dozen workers lose their lives as a result of high temperatures, and another 4,000 become very ill. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that exposure to extreme heat has been associated with an increased risk for traumatic injuries. Workers who are older, in poor physical condition, overweight, or who take certain medications are at the highest risk for suffering from heat-related injuries and illnesses. Common conditions associated with exposure to excessive heat include:
- Heat Stroke: The most serious heat-related illness, heat stroke occurs when a worker’s body is no longer able to control its temperature. When the body’s sweating mechanism fails, the body becomes unable to cool down, and its temperature can skyrocket in a matter of minutes. Permanent disability or even death can occur if treatment is not received right away.
- Heat Exhaustion: When a worker’s body loses too much water and salt, heat exhaustion can occur. Workers can become ill, dizzy, and weak. If the proper steps are not taken, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
- Rhabdomyolysis: Prolonged physical exertion in high temperatures can result in the rapid breakdown, rupture, and even death of muscle tissue. When this occurs, large proteins and electrolytes that are released into the bloodstream can cause seizures, irregular heartbeats, and kidney damage.
Preventative Measures to Protect Workers from the Heat
OSHA offers the following tips to help ensure that workers stay safe in extremely hot work environments:
- Proper Hydration is Key: Dehydration is a major cause of heat-related illness. Workers should be sure to keep plenty of cool fluids on hand. Caffeine and alcoholic beverages should be avoided because they both increase the risk for dehydration.
- Breaks: Workers should be allowed to take frequent breaks in shaded or cooled areas when temperatures soar. When possible, cool compresses and extra water to splash the body with should be readily available.
- Acclimation: New workers and those who are not used to high temperatures should be allowed enough time to properly acclimate to the warm environment. Frequent breaks and a gradually increasing workload are recommended.
In Illinois, employers are responsible for providing employees with a work environment that is safe from preventable hazards. With proper training and a few precautions, the number of extreme temperature-related injuries can be reduced.