Heat, storms, hazardous plants and insects

What employers need to know and do to keep outdoor workers safe this summer and fall

With the dog days of summer here at last, an employer with outdoor operations or a hot indoor work environment must take into account exposure to additional seasonal health and safety risks. Occupational health and safety legislation across Canada imposes some form of duty on an employer to take precautions reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. That includes taking precautions to guard against harm from extreme heat, dangerous weather conditions, and contact with harmful plants or insects. While not all seasonal risks can be eliminated, providing education, training, protective equipment and appropriate supervision can help keep workers safe this summer.

Heat stress

A worker required to work in an environment with high heat or humidity is at risk of heat-related illness, disability or, in severe cases, death. This includes a worker working outdoors but also indoors in a foundry, refinery, bakery, commercial kitchen, processing plant, or other similar environment. Heat stress occurs when a worker is not able to effectively regulate and maintain internal body temperature. Physical exertion in a high heat environment increases the risk of experiencing heat stress. Other factors such as physical condition, age, existing medical conditions or medication can also make a worker more vulnerable to heat stress.

An employer with a high heat work environment should develop policies and procedures to protect workers from heat stress including monitoring workplace temperature, training workers and supervisors to identify signs of heat-related illness, and adjusting working conditions as necessary and appropriate for the business.

Hazardous insects

Risk of illness caused by insect bites is not just a concern for an employer operating in a remote or rural area. Ticks infected with Lyme disease and mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus are now common in many urban environments. An employer with an outdoor operation or site located in an area in which a worker may come into contact with ticks or mosquitoes should take steps to minimize risk by informing workers of the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and West Nile virus, encouraging workers to seek medical attention in the case of a suspected infection and eliminating (to the extent possible) potential insect breeding sites and habitats. Proactive steps may also include wearing closed-toe shoes and light-coloured clothes that fully cover the body, use of insect repellent, and showering or bathing within two hours of being outdoors.

Poisonous plants

Exposure to hazardous plants can pose a serious risk to a worker working outdoors during the summer months. Workers in construction, landscaping, road building, maintenance, wildlife management, and parks and recreation may be exposed to harmful plants growing at or near job sites. To protect workers, outdoor work sites should be inspected for possible hazardous plants before work begins, and workers should be instructed about how to identify, handle, and dispose of hazardous plants.

Many people are familiar with poison ivy, but may not be aware of other more toxic plants such as giant hogweed, wild parsnip, stinging nettle and poison sumac, which can be found in many Canadian localities:

• Giant hogweed contains photosensitizing sap which sensitizes skin to ultraviolet light. Skin contact with the sap from this plant, combined with exposure to sunlight can cause severe blisters, burns, and if sap enters the eye, blindness.

• Wild parsnip contains photosensitizing sap with effects on contact similar to giant hogweed.

• Stinging nettle is a flowering plant that has tiny hairs containing acid and other chemicals on its leaves and stems. When touched, the hairs from the leaves and stems imbed in a worker’s skin causing redness and swelling.

• Native to southern Ontario, poison sumac is a shrub or small tree containing sap similar to poison ivy. Most people who come into contact with sap from the leaves or stems experience an itchy rash.

Dangerous weather

Summer storms are a significant safety risk for a worker working outdoors. Each year, Environment Canada reports 60-70 people are injured from lightning strikes in Canada. An electrical shock from lightning can cause death or severe burns. Agricultural, construction, plumbing, forestry, telecommunication, recreation, utility and other workers required to work outdoors in open spaces, near tall objects, or with conductive materials (such as metal) are particularly vulnerable to injury from lightning. To help minimize risk of electrical shock from lightning, an employer should monitor approaching weather conditions and educate supervisors and workers about what to do if a storm approaches.

Concluding thoughts

Seasonal hazards are a challenge for many employers. Developing and implementing written policies and procedures to minimize these risks is an important part of an employer’s due diligence.

Lisa M. Bolton is a lawyer with Sherrard Kuzz LLP, leading management-side employment and labour law firm. Lisa can be reached at (416) 603-0700 (Main),(416) 420-0738 (24 Hour) or by visiting www.sherrardkuzz.com.

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