Heat-Related Work Injuries Are More Common Than We Think
August 29, 2021
Congress recently heard how climate change not only endangers people because of natural disasters like wildfires and tropical storms, but also how increasing temperatures adversely affect workers – especially those who are lower-income – by causing thousands of preventable injuries and deaths each year. Indoor and outdoor workers both face the risks associated with heat exposure, which account for millions of dollars in lost wages and medical bills for injured victims annually.
To determine just how much temperature affects workers, researchers conducted a study where they investigated more than 11 million injury reports over an 18-yearlong period in California. The researchers determined daily temperature highs and cross-compared that data to how many injuries took place on those days. Before the study, data suggested extreme temperature conditions caused approximately 850 injuries per year. After this most recent inquiry, however, it became clear that previous estimates were reporting numbers far too low.
Heat Exposure Injury Rates
Altogether, the researchers found that an additional 360,000 temperature-related injuries occurred over the 18-yearlong period they studied, or about 20,000 injuries every year. On days where the temperature was 85 to 90 degrees, workers were 5% to 7% more likely to get into a workplace accident; on days where the temperature reached above 100 degrees, workers were 10 to 15% more likely to sustain an injury. The researchers found that pay was a big determinant for heat-related injuries, too. In fact, the lowest-paid workers in the study suffered injuries at five times greater a rate as the highest paid workers.
In addition to low-income workers, certain other groups of workers also face disproportionately high heat-related injury risks. They include:
- Days with excessively high temperatures are three-times as dangerous for male workers than they are for female workers
- Younger workers. Workers in their 20s and 30s are two-times mores likely to sustain heat-related injuries than workers who are in their 50s and 60s
Despite all the worrisome news concerning worker exposure rates, the study did find one good aspect: the number appeared to decrease slightly after some states began implementing more safety rules and regulations for employers to follow. Starting in 2005, California employers had to provide workers with shade, rest, and water on days topping 95 degrees. While this does not mean that shade, rest, and water are enough to completely eradicate exposure risks, it does indicate that employers can – and must – take steps to adequately safeguard employees.
Types of Heat-Related Illnesses
Safety and health programs are the number one line of defense against preventable workplace injuries, such as those that result from exposure to extreme temperatures. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers are legally obligated to create plans that protect workers from developing heat-related illnesses. OSHA reports that some of most common types of heat-related illnesses in the workplaces are:
- Rhabdomyolysis, or muscle breakdown. Symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include muscle pain, weakness, and dark urine or reduced urine output
- Heat rash, which presents as clusters of red bumps on the skin. Heat rash usually appears on a person’s neck, upper chest, and/or skin folds
- Heat syncope, or fainting and dizziness
- Heat cramps. People with heat cramps typically experience muscle spasms or pain in the legs, arms, or trunk
- Heat exhaustion. Individuals with heat exhaustion are prone to irritability, fatigue, thirst, nausea or vomiting, dizziness or lightheadedness, heavy sweating, and an elevated body temperature or rapid heart rate
- Heat stroke. Symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, slurred speech, unconsciousness, seizures, heavy sweating or hot, dry skin, very high body temperature, and rapid heart rate
While some heat-related illnesses present with mild symptoms, others can be fatal. To reduce the risks of heat-related illnesses, OSHA recommends that employers:
- Take extra precautions when it comes to protecting new workers
- Train supervisors and workers on how to recognize the signs of heat-related illnesses as well as effective ways to control them
- Perform routine checks on all workers to ensure that they are not incurring unreasonably unsafe risks associated with heat exposure
- Implement administrative and engineering controls to reduce risk factors
- Always provide sufficient shade, rest, and fluids
Per federal guidelines, employers are legally obligated to provide workplaces free from serious and recognized hazards. Not only does this mean that employers need to make sure that work areas, equipment, and machinery are in safe working condition, but also that they must guard workers against dangerous levels of heat exposure whether they work indoors or outdoors.
Filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim
When a worker sustains injuries due to the employer’s failure to uphold safety and health guidelines as prescribed by federal law, he or she can file a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that provides medical benefits and wage replacement to injured workers. At Galfand Berger, our attorneys have successfully handled thousands of workers’ compensation cases. To learn more about filing a claim for your work-related injuries, contact a representative at our firm who can help online now.
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