A 21st Century Solution for Heat Stress on the Job

It’s no secret that summers and average seasonal temperatures are getting hotter. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11 workers are seriously injured or die from heat stress every day in the United States alone. The often-overlooked part of this statistic is that almost 17 percent of all heat stress-related injuries occur outside of what is considered hot seasons. Harsh indoor environmental work conditions cause heat stress on workers, as can heavy personal protective clothing.

Hot work is unavoidable, but solutions for keeping workers safe in these conditions are evolving. Difficulties and dangers of hot work shouldn’t just “come with the territory” when they can be proactively monitored and managed successfully.

Under the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) criteria for a recommended standard with occupational exposure to heat and hot environments, employers are strongly encouraged to develop and implement effective work-rest cycles that account for the following:

1.Types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

2.Length of time PPE can be worn

3.Individual work rate, fitness level, acclimatization, and hydration levels

4.Environmental conditions (heat and humidity levels, radiant heat from sunlight outdoors, and wind speed if outdoors or if a fan is being used indoors)

To most, these criteria sound like common sense. The more layers worn in a warmer environment, whether it be in the presence of a blast furnace, generator, or even a facility with no climate control and little airflow ventilation, the more buttoned up policy and procedures need to be for heat stress management programs.

What is being done upfront to curb incidences of heat stress injury remain procedural: rest when it’s needed, hydrate, and use methods to keep cool. Environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals worldwide have also implemented wearable PPE that protects industrial workers from heat exposure with the use of auxiliary and personal cooling systems, such as water and air-cooled garments and clothing, cool packs, cooling vests, and damp outer garments, many of which are used during worker rest periods when the individual is not actively working. These solutions have a wide span in user scalability, maintenance, and cost. While they are practical tools for prevention, none are used to actively predict if and when a worker is at risk for a heat-stress event.

The composition of the industrial workforce globally is as deep as it is wide. Age, gender, physiological makeup, previous medical history, and tenure are significant variables in an industrial worker’s ability to effectively manage heat. Everyone is different and so is their body’s response to heat. Heat risk prevention needs to be custom-tailored to every individual’s physical characteristics. While this makes sense, it is often not put into practice when it comes to heat safety.

Most heat stress management programs are broad in nature with a “one size fits all” application. When heat prevention is universally the same for all, workers can be exposed to the dangers of not knowing, or choosing to dismiss, potential recommendations to care for their body during daily work in hot and humid conditions. In addition, the pressure to maintain or surpass productivity quotas or “push through” discomfort so as not to disappoint team members, further exacerbate the dangers of working in the heat. These tendencies to overachieve can quickly turn to catastrophe on the job should an individual ignore the warning signs of the onset of heat injury, which endanger the worker as well as the rest of the team, and the employer.

Projects, and entire companies, can suffer when heat risks aren’t managed effectively. According to OSHA estimates, the approximate cost for a singular occupational heat prostration injury for a manufacturer, as an example, operating at a 20 percent profit margin, leads to a direct cost of close to $38,000 and indirect cost of $41,000. The estimated revenue to offset these costs can easily surpass $200,000. Most organizations in both the private and public sector operate on slim margins as is, so the magnitude of heat risk related events can be devasting to the bottom line.

There are a few solutions to curb the frequency and severity of heat-related incidents. Environmental health and safety management, innovation teams, and even C-Level executives in industrial and government segments are constantly researching ways to improve their approach to heat stress monitoring, not only considering prevention methods, but prediction techniques as well. Several organizations have incorporated and adopted the use of wearable, smart PPE devices with the goal of 100 percent heat risk prevention.

While a 100 percent goal may seem lofty, it is fully attainable with the right safety solutions and policies. Currently, there are a handful of options that monitor worker physiological readings to warn both workers and health and safety managers if there is risk for a heat-related incident involving a worker. Many wearable solutions require users and other personnel to manually check physiological readings, which can be helpful on the job but often cumbersome to implement at scale in day-to-day workflow with a large workforce. Others provide an alert tree system that trigger warnings to both the user and managers if a worker meets the criteria for being at risk of heat stress, such as the worker’s elevated heart rate or core body temperature.

The effective deployment of a wearable device in the industrial workspace is determined by the willingness of workers to adopt technology as a standard part of their work preparation, the EHS team’s enforcement of device use, and the reliability of the overall solution. Many EHS professionals are also looking beyond the day-to-day use of devices to gather data over the long term to gain deeper insight into ways to bolster worker health and productivity. As more industries start onboarding smart PPE into their daily workflow, expect to see wearable devices monitoring physiological wellness commonplace in the 21st century workplace, where heat stress will be an increasingly important challenge to manage. Soon, monitoring devices will be as much of a best practice in safety as steel-toed work boots, hardhats, and protective eyewear on the job.

Phillip Davis is a manager on the team at Kenzen, the smart PPE innovator focused on physiological monitoring and the prevention of heat injury and death among workers. Davis has a decade of research experience in industry and academia related to human physiology and wearable devices, and advises companies on heat stress physiology and dehydration.

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