Heat stress: How to keep outdoor workers safe from sun exposure

Use the hierarchy of controls to ensure workers are protected at every turn

Heat stress: How to keep outdoor workers safe from sun exposure

A total of 1.7 million Canadians are exposed to the sun at work, according to CAREX Canada. Unhealthy exposures can increase the risk of skin cancer, heat stress and other issues. This is why it is so important for employers to ensure that those working outdoors are properly protected and educated.

The sun is usually the first thing that we think about when it comes to outdoor work, but there are also other factors that need to be considered when we’re talking about the environment such as air temperature and humidity.

These can make the environment “very hot, and create a hazard for heat stress or heat exhaustion,” says Catherine Bergeron.

There are a few ways to address this, she says. When it comes to safety, we always go with the hierarchy of control. “So the first thing you want to do is to eliminate the hazard if you can.” For example, if possible employers and OHS professionals can get workers to do the job inside if possible.

When this is not possible, you can consider engineering controls. For example, making modifications or having controls with equipment or processes such as adding ventilation to a workspace or creating shelters for employees where they can go to take a break out of the sun.

If none of these are possible, Bergeron says that you can move on to administrative controls (and in fact, workplaces should use a mix of different controls to ensure that workers are safe). She says that, for example, workplaces should educate workers on the effects of extreme heat, and strive to change work practices or implement policies to ensure that they have breaks, and are communicated with regularly. Very importantly, workers should always have water “because hydration is highly important in those situations.”

The last layer of protection is PPE and the correct clothing such as reflective or cooling clothing, as well as eye protection.

Any company that employs workers working outside should have a “working in heat” policy, says Bergeron. This outlines the controls the company is going to do to reduce the risk. She says that education should be an integral part of the policy, not only on recognizing signs of heat stress but also on how to adequately use their PPE.

Those working in extreme heat conditions should also be acclimatized to the heat. “A worker that works regularly in a hot environment is less prone to heat stress,” says Bergeron. If it’s a one time thing or something which doesn’t occur often, workers are more at risk.

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