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Opinion: Protecting outdoor workers during heat wave

With the recent heat waves across Canada, people have felt the impact of the weather on their daily activities. However, workers often don’t have a chance to adjust their schedules in the same circumstances. Many have to continue working outdoors or experience the same commutes despite heat warnings. In some cases, overworking in the heat without sufficient protective measures in place could cause heat stress and heat stroke.

What obligations do employers have during heat waves?

Under provincial occupational health and safety legislation, employers have a duty to protect their workers. This includes protecting them from the hazards posed by heat waves. As there is still quite a bit of summer left, employers should be aware of their obligations. Given the hot temperatures parts of Canada can experience during the summer, it is important that businesses have a heat stress plan in place.

What are heat stress and heat disorders?

Heat stress occurs when the body cannot cool itself down fast enough. Usually sweating helps to cool our bodies, however in extremely hot and humid weather, the body may not manage to get rid of excess heat sufficiently.

What are the signs and causes of heat stress?

Employers should watch out for the signs of heat stress. These include excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, irritability, fainting, headache and confusion, heat rash, difficulty breathing and muscle cramps. Causes of heat stress include radiant heat from direct or indirect sunlight or high humidity. Another cause of heat stress could be highly active work or the health of the worker.

Some individuals may not be able to tolerate heat as well due to age, medical conditions, obesity or dehydration. Workers may also be more prone to heat stress is they are not used to working during hot weather.

How can employers protect their workers?

Employers can protect their outdoor workers by creating a heat stress plan, educating them on how to work safely during hot weather and by conducting a risk assessment.

During the risk assessment, employers should identify any hazards and use the hierarchy of safety controls to make the required changes. Employers should evaluate whether they can provide a cooler working environment and modify the workplace to minimize hazards. For example, installing air conditioners and creating shaded areas for work and rest can help protect workers from heat stress.

Using policies to prevent heat disorders at work

Work policies and procedures can also be used to minimize risk to workers. During a heat wave, workers should be instructed to increase their number of breaks and water intake, be provided personal protective equipment and be advised to monitor their wellbeing.

Advice for employers

Employers are advised to delegate more workers to one task to lessen the workload and to train staff to recognize and prevent heat stress. The workplace should have a plan on how to respond to heat-related illnesses and ensure that someone trained in first aid is available on site.

Certain workplaces are advised to have a heat stress plan by provincial governments. These employers should create a heat stress plan in consultation with their workplace joint health and safety committee or health and safety representative.

Hope McManus is the head of health and safety at Peninsula, heading the company’s health and safety advisory team.