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Rising temperatures are taking a toll on workers. Learn how to protect them.

July 1, 2022

Last summer was hot. One of the hottest, actually.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), July 2021 was earth’s warmest month on record. It capped a summer full of heat advisories and excessive heat warnings that affected millions of people from coast to coast. For people who worked outdoors or in attics and crawlspaces, such as PMPs, it was even more brutal.

Working in the heat can be dangerous. In 2019, 43 workers in the United States died from the heat and 3,080 suffered serious heat-related injuries and illness, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

PestSure, an insurance program for the pest management industry, had 10 claims for heat-related illness in 2021, said Linda Midyett, vice president and loss control director for the program.

These claims mostly involved newer employees who had less than one year on the job, with incidents occurring in mid-to-late afternoon and between May and early July

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The percentage of heat-related claims at PestSure has remained steady over the past decade. But experts say exposure to extreme heat will affect more people and worker productivity in the years to come.

By 2050, extreme heat is expected to claim nearly 60,000 U.S. lives, with most losses occurring in Arizona, Southern California and southwest Texas, according to a 2021 report by Vivid Economics and the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. Extreme heat also is expected to reduce U.S. labor productivity by $500 billion a year by 2050.

Heat exhaustion “without a doubt” can lead to other workplace injuries, said Gamble Cuce, program manager for workers’ compensation at Brownyard Group, which insures the pest control industry. A technician who is dizzy from working in a 140 degrees Fahrenheit attic, for example, is more prone to fall off a ladder. “I think that heat is definitely a hazard,” she said.

To better protect workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has prioritized inspections of heat-related complaints and is developing a formal federal heat hazard standard.

Currently, occupational heat exposure is covered under OSHA’s general duty clause, and some states — California, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington — have specific laws governing it.

The new standard will be based on OSHA’s current heat hazard recommendations for indoor and outdoor work environments. “If you have a heat illness prevention program in place, which every PMP should already have, there shouldn’t be a lot of new of new requirements,” said Midyett.

To protect employees from heat, here are some tips.

CREATE A PREVENTION PROGRAM. For starters, create a heat illness prevention program. It should outline how to build heat tolerance, access first aid, reduce heat stress, measure heat, respond to heat advisories and warnings and train employees. Learn more at osha.gov/heat-exposure. “The basis for your heat illness prevention program is water, rest and shade,” said Midyett.

PUT THE PROGRAM INTO PRACTICE. Companies need more than a written program with posters on the wall, said Midyett. Make educating employees about heat illness an ongoing priority. “Everybody needs to be reminded” how to recognize and prevent heat illness, she said.

HELP WORKERS ACCLIMATIZE. Southern states have the most workplace heat fatalities, stated OSHA. But workers everywhere are at an increased risk of heat illness when early season extreme heat events occur.

To help new and veteran employees build tolerance to heat and humidity, encourage them to consume water and sports drinks, work shorter shifts and take frequent breaks in shade and air conditioning.

KNOW THE SIGNS. The signs of heat illness range from confusion and fatigue to muscle spasms, rashes and losing consciousness. It is a stage-by-stage illness, and the earliest signs are easy to miss (or dismiss) by the affected person.

This puts field employees at risk. “They’re working alone, so often there’s not anyone around them to recognize their symptoms,” said Midyett. Make sure they can identify heat illness in themselves and know what to do should they suspect it.

PROVIDE FLEXIBILITY & STRUCTURE. Give field employees the flexibility to avoid exposure to high heat. Schedule attic work for early mornings and give them time between jobs to take breaks from the heat.

Provide specific instructions to new employees for their first few weeks of summer work and to all field employees during extreme heat events. Instead of leaving it to their own judgment, tell them when to take breaks (e.g., after a certain number of service visits), how long to rest and where (e.g., 10 minutes in the air-conditioned cab of their vehicle) and how much water to drink, said Midyett.