The heat is on

When the temperatures and humidity rise, outdoor workplaces should be considered a health and safety risk

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s the heat of the summer — do you know what your outside workers are doing?

As we cruise towards Canada Day with the hot weather of July and the dog days of August approaching, it’s never a bad idea for employers with outside workers to go over their policies and procedures regarding working conditions in sweltering conditions — not to mention ensure they’re up-to-date on health and safety legislation that dictates what employers can legally require workers to do in such conditions.

When the temperature and humidity rise, so does the danger for workers who are out in it. As much as stormy weather can put a halt to outside jobs, so should extremely hot weather, even if the sky is as clear as a bell. In fact, a clear sky can be worse when it’s hot, since the sun beats down mercilessly and can cause heat stroke or severe sunburns.

And if it’s humid, dehydration is another danger. Employers need to keep in mind the need for frequent water breaks, the use of sunblock, and allowing workers to get out of the sun on a regular basis. These types of concerns are just as important as proper operation of heavy machinery in an industrial environment when it comes to avoiding risk of injury or worse.

Some jurisdictions use the threshold limit values (TLVs) for working in hot environments recommended by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. The TLVs refer to the temperature it feels like (factoring in things like humidity) and how much work during a work/rest cycle should be permitted for an eight-hour workday. For example, for light work that takes up 75 to 100 per cent of the time, the TLV is 31ºC. But if the work is moderate most of the time (moderate lifting, pushing or pulling), the TLV is 28 ºC.  Heavy physical work that takes up 50 to 75 per cent of the time is limited to 27.5ºC or lower, and if such work only takes up 25 to 50 per cent of the time, the TLV is 29ºC and so on.

Some provinces have their own specific limits for certain types of work, such as construction and mines, while federal public service employees are not required to work if the humidex surpasses 40ºC at their work location.

Regardless of what is specified in health and safety legislation and TLVs, there are other factors that employers have to keep an eye on, such as employee medical conditions. It’s a good idea to have outdoor workers monitored or have them check in to make sure they aren’t pushing boundaries. It doesn’t help the workers or the employer if they try to push things to get something done and a heat-related illness results. The last thing employers need as well is a health and safety inspection and potential charges that they didn’t take reasonable measures to ensure the workplace was safe.

So much as an industrial environment with chemicals and machinery can be considered a safety sensitive workplace, so should an outdoor worksite in hot and humid conditions where workers can be injured in a different way. Something for employers and their management to keep in mind during the hazy, crazy days of summer.

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