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The dangers of heat stress for outdoor workers

On Behalf of | Jun 22, 2023 | Workplace Illness

Summer is a popular time for hitting the beach, surfing, attending festivals, etc. But summer also brings extremely high temperatures, which can severely affect workers such as construction crews who primarily work outdoors. Outdoor work during summer mornings and afternoons can expose workers to excessive amounts of heat, and the resulting heat stress can lead to various health problems – even death.

Unfortunately, for most outdoor workers, their employers aren’t obligated to help them beat the heat.

A new report found that to this day, only three U.S. states – California, Oregon and Washington – have mandated heat breaks for outdoor workers. The report comes after Texas recently enacted a law that dropped mandatory water and shade breaks for construction workers in Austin and Dallas.

If you’re a worker, how worried should you be about heat stress? And can workers’ compensation cover heat-related health problems?

When does outdoor heat become a health risk?

Outdoor heat can become a worker risk when the temperature hits 80 degrees. But several factors may also exacerbate heat for workers and lead to heat stress, even if outdoor temperatures haven’t hit 65 degrees. These factors include:

  • Work involving hot or radiant heat processes, such as smelting, welding and asphalt surfacing.
  • Work in areas with high relative humidity conditions (i.e., greater than 50% humidity).
  • Work using protective clothing and respiratory protection, which can trap heat.
  • Increased work levels can wear down workers and make them more vulnerable to heat stress.
  • Poor heat dissipation/ventilation in the work area.

Employers should plan around these conditions and provide measures for their workers against the heat, such as shade and electric fans.

Heat disorders

Heat stress can lead to several disorders, such as cramps and rashes. But the two major disorders to look out for are heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion: A worker could be suffering from heat exhaustion if they exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting

Fainting is also a symptom of heat exhaustion, but losing consciousness is a dangerous sign that the heat stress led to a lack of oxygen to the brain. The employer or co-workers must call for immediate medical attention if this happens.

Heat stroke: Happens when an individual’s internal body temperature dangerously exceeds 106 degrees. Symptoms include:

  • Absence of sweat despite extreme heat, dry skin
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures

Heat stroke is a medical emergency that can result in death, so workers that suffer from the disorder must be given immediate treatment.

Receiving workers’ compensation for heat stress

If a heat disorder contracted during outdoor work causes you to miss workdays and requires medical attention, you’re entitled to workers’ compensation.

But while there’s coverage for heat disorder treatment and related benefits, employers can still deny your claim for several reasons. Workers with preexisting medical conditions or above a specific age limit may be rejected from claiming compensation because their current health led to the complication.

Those with denied heat disorder claims can appeal the decision with the help of an attorney. An attorney can help a worker challenge a claim denial and ensure that the claimant receives the maximum compensation possible.