Heat Stress: A Year Round Concern

When the first warm days of summer arrive, if you are like most Canadians, you race to your garage, dust the cob webs off the barbecue, grab a six pack and hurry outside to enjoy the warm weather. For many others, summer can be a time of anxiety.  Instead of going into air conditioned offices, they’re dreading the thought of the oven like heat they will be spending their eight hour working day in.  Similar thoughts are on the mind of workers – even in the winter.

Bakers, foundry workers, laundry clerks, commercial kitchen and fast food workers and others who toil in environments where heat, often combined with humidity, can become deadly, know only too well what hell feels like.  Outside workers, exposed to the intense heat of the summer sun, are also negatively affected by heat.

I’ve investigated heat stress in various industries over the years. It was never an easy visit to walk into a workplace where workers are sweating, feeling dizzy or faint, and the temperature reads well over what the human body can endure.

I recall one instance where a woman called the Ministry of Labour (MOL) complaining of heat in a workplace. When I attended, I found a young summer student working alone in an ice cream parlour. The air conditioner had broken down days previously. The temperature in the store measured over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. There were no fans, and no way to cool the workplace. It seemed ironic that the freezers holding the ice cream were all in perfect working order while the young worker said she was “melting”.

37 degrees C = 99.14 degrees F
Too Hot to work

Heat Stress is a serious, and often life threatening physical reaction to heat beyond what the human body is capable of handling. In 2011 a baker in Barrie, Kim Douglas Warner,died of heat stress when the bakery reached approximately 49 degrees Celsius. His core body temperature was measured at 42 degrees. The workplace was later fined $215,000 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In today’s legislative climate the employer could be facing a jail sentence.

If you don’t know much about heat stress or want additional information on how to protect yourself or your workers, there are a multitude of web sites that cover the subject in detail:  The Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers Inc.  (OHCOW) has developed a resource for protecting workers from heat stress; the Ministry of Labour’s site also has resources, or just goggle heat stress; there are hundreds of sites where you can find information.

In Ontario, every workplace must have a health and safety policy. To implement that policy, employers need a program that contains all the elements required for that particular workplace. Where heat is or could become a health and safety issue, the employer must have a heat stress program.

The type of program needed for each workplace is different. Is it a factory, a mine, a greenhouse, a coffee shop, a farm, a fast food outlet, or an office on the 12th floor where the air con might go out during an electrical shortage?
Each workplace requires their own policy and program that outlines procedures and measures the employer has taken to protect workers from heat stress.

As an Inspector during a visit, I would expect to see the policy, ensure that all workers were aware of and trained in the policy and understood the procedures in place to safeguard their health and safety. I would review the measures and procedures: are there allowances for leaving the area and going to a cooling down station? Is water freely available?  What clothing are they required to wear? Are there adequate fans, if needed? Is the HVAC system working properly?

As a part of any inspection I would look at and often test equipment such as water fountains, HVAC systems, protective clothing, and temperature gauges, to ensure they were maintained in good working condition. Orders to an employer were rarely welcome but were often issued. It meant someone was not doing their job, didn’t know any better, or just didn’t give a dam about workers.

Often, I would find other issues while performing the inspection. At one golf course I attended, after receiving a complaint about heat, I noticed a picnic table near a pleasant little river under the shade of a lovely oak stand. Perfect place for lunch I thought, until I saw a hose from the river pumping water onto the lawns. Mist from the water was settling onto the picnic table as well as on the sandwiches the workers were eating while on their break.

The water was sent to be tested. It came back as laden with E.coli, a potentially harmful or fatal bacterium. You never know what the Inspector will find when she comes a-calling.

So now, with the summer sun blazing down, ensure that your workplace is safe, that policies and measures and procedures are in place, and that all workers can go home at the end of their shift,  pull out the barbecue and settle down to relax for their hard earned rest.

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