4 Minute Read

A sweltering heat wave has swept the American West over the past few weeks, causing record-high temperatures in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah.

As summer starts, it’s important for companies in the landscaping industry to pay close attention to rising temperatures. Between 1992 and 2017, heat stress killed 815 workers in the U.S. and seriously injured 70,000 more (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). As striking as this number is, experts think it’s probably far below the actual total since many cases go unreported.

For landscape crews who spend most of their time outdoors, extreme heat is dangerous—and the responsibility for protecting those crews falls to employers. Even if climate conditions haven’t been a major issue for your company in the past, there’s no guarantee that your crews are safe. And if they aren’t accustomed to working in extreme heat, taking steps to prevent potential heat stress is even more critical.

Awareness

The first step is becoming familiar with the various forms of heat-related illnesses so you can quickly identify and address them when they occur.

Here are the most common forms of illness, along with their symptoms, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Heat stroke

Symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizures
  • Heavy sweating or hot, dry skin
  • Very high body temperature
  • Rapid heart rate

Heat exhaustion

Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated body temperature or fast heart rate

Rhabdomyolysis

Rhabdomyolysis is a rare but life-threatening condition caused when muscle damage releases a dangerous protein (myoglobin) into the blood stream. Overexertion in extreme heat can cause this illness to occur.

Symptoms include:

  • Muscle pain or cramps
  • Dark urine or reduced urine output
  • Weakness

Heat syncope

Heat syncope is a fainting episode or dizziness that typically happens when a person has been standing for too long in the heat, or quickly moves from a sitting/lying down to upright position.

Symptoms include:

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness

Heat cramps

Symptoms include:

  • Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms
  • Usually in legs, arms, or trunk

Heat rash

Symptoms include:

  • Clusters of red bumps on skin
  • Often appears on neck, upper chest, and skin folds

Prevention

To prevent these illnesses, consider putting some of the following measures in place. By controlling stressors, training crew members and supervisors, encouraging regular hydration, setting appropriate rest breaks, practicing acclimatization, and using OSHA’s heat safety tool, you can help protect your crews in extreme heat conditions.

Control stressors

As an employer, make sure you’re aware of weather conditions and take proactive steps to create a safe environment for your crews.

The CDC recommends limiting time in direct heat or increasing recovery times, using special tools to reduce strain on workers, increasing the number of workers per task, or implementing a heat alert program whenever the weather service forecasts a heat wave.

If possible, you could also consider shifting your daily schedule so work occurs during cooler parts of the day.

Training

As summer approaches, train all workers and supervisors in the seriousness of heat-related illnesses. Make sure they’re familiar with the symptoms listed above and know how to protect themselves—and what to do if someone becomes ill on the job site.

Crew members may not realize additional factors can contribute to dehydration. Let them know to avoid things like alcohol consumption or drinking beverages with a high caffeine or sugar content (like coffee and soda) immediately before or during the workday.

Hydration

It’s crucial for workers to stay hydrated, especially in the heat. They should drink water every 15 minutes, so be sure to have an adequate supply that’s easily accessible throughout the day. During prolonged exposure to heat, crews should also be provided with sports drinks containing balanced electrolytes.

Remind crew members to drink plenty of water before they arrive at work as it will be easier to remain hydrated throughout the day. By the time someone feels thirsty, their body is already behind on fluid intake, so it’s better to hydrate at regular intervals than to consume large quantities of water less frequently.

Rest breaks

Set aside more time than usual for rest breaks during extreme heat conditions. Make sure employees know they’re permitted to take breaks when experiencing heat discomfort. As you know by now, pushing through early signs of heat stress can lead to illnesses with far more severe consequences.

To create safe working conditions, shorten active periods and increase rest periods when temperature, humidity, or sunshine increase.

Acclimatization

When you work in high-heat conditions regularly, your body gradually adjusts to better handle its environment (through increased sweating efficiency, for example). New employees who start during warmer times of the year should go through an acclimatization process.

Generally, this involves gradually increasing their time in hot conditions over a 7–14-day period. The CDC recommends starting their schedule with no more than 20% of the usual duration of work, with increases up to 20% on each subsequent day.

During their first two weeks, new hires should be closely monitored for signs of heat stress.

OSHA-NIOSH heat safety tool

The OSHA-NIOSH heat safety tool is a free app available for iOS and Android devices that determines heat index values based on temperature and humidity.

The app includes a current risk level, along with any precautions that should be taken.

During heat waves, consider having someone at your company regularly monitor conditions using the app so you can keep crews informed of risks and take steps to promote additional safety measures.

Response

Even if you’ve taken all the preventive measures above, heat-related illnesses can still occur. When you’ve trained your team to recognize the signs, they’ll know when to step in. But what should they do if a fellow crew member is exhibiting signs of heat stress?

Since it can be difficult to identify exactly which heat illness someone is experiencing, OSHA advises against trying to provide a diagnosis right away. This can cause you to lose valuable time if the situation is serious. Instead, begin administering aid immediately.

To administer first aid to someone exhibiting signs of heat stress, do the following:

  • Take them to a cooler area (with air conditioning, or at least shade)
  • Try to lower their body temperature (immerse them in cold water or an ice bath; remove outer layers of clothing; place ice or cold towels on their head, neck, trunk, armpits, and groin; or use fans to circulate air)
  • Encourage them to drink water, clear juice, or a sports drink with electrolytes

Never leave someone experiencing symptoms of heat-related illnesses alone. Make sure at least one person is with them at all times to monitor their condition.

If in doubt, or if symptoms don't subside after providing first aid care, call 911.

 

Heat is the number-one cause of weather-related fatalities in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. For industries where workers are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses, it's critical to implement preventative measures and to have a plan in place for when cases arise.

For additional resources, visit the CDC's website on heat stress, review this comprehensive guide on occupational exposure to hot environments, or download the free heat safety tool app.

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