How to avoid heat stress for masked workers

Continue to follow a heat stress prevention plan, with a few new considerations for the pandemic.

posted August 03, 2020

heatstressAs summer temperatures climb and many workers are performing their job duties while wearing masks, it's crucial for employers to keep heat safety top of mind.

Our advice? Continue to follow a heat stress prevention plan, with a few new considerations.

“We have to plan for all potential risks workers face. Heat stress and heat-related illnesses should be on everyone's list,” says David Johnson, industrial hygiene supervisor at SAIF.

Here are tips for keeping workers safe this summer.

Assess the riskAssess the risks

Whether employees are in the field, at a hot stove, or on a construction site, heat exposure could have a significant impact on their health and safety.

One way to evaluate the risk is by using the heat index, which is a single value that accounts for both temperature and humidity. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “the heat index is a better measure than air temperature alone for estimating the risk to workers from environmental heat sources.”

Some other factors to consider, according to OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), are:

  • Direct sunlight with limited access to shade
  • Exposure to indoor sources of radiant heat (like a stove or furnace)
  • Limited air circulation
  • Low fluid consumption
  • Physical exertion
  • Heavy personal protective equipment (PPE)

Face masks and heat stressFace masks and heat stress

The State of Oregon's current guidelines require many workers to wear masks to prevent transmission of COVID-19. While workers in some industries may be used to wearing masks in warm environments, it is new for others. Depending on the work environment, wearing a mask could increase breathing resistance and heat load, increasing the wearer's risk of heat stress.

“Managing a heat illness prevention program and COVID-19 simultaneously presents some challenges. We have to weigh the risks to both and find creative solutions to keep employees safe, especially as most workers are not acclimated to the recent jump in outdoor temperatures, which creates a dangerous situation.” Johnson says.

Protect the workerProtect the worker

The most effective way to prevent heat-related injuries or illnesses is to eliminate the risk altogether. One way to do this is to change shift schedules so that workers are not outside during the hottest time of day.

Hazard elimination is not always possible, however. When employees must be exposed to high temperatures or sources of heat, it's important to provide them with the necessary resources, breaks, and PPE. Consider developing an acclimatization plan to help workers adapt to hot environments. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if workers are in an environment where cloth face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related illness or cause safety concerns, consult with an occupational safety and health professional to identify the right face covering for the job.

If face coverings can't be used, it's important to use other measures to prevent transmission, including physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

Learn the symptomsLearn the symptoms

No matter how much you prepare, illness may still occur. Learning the signs and symptoms of different levels of heat stress could save a life.

This handout makes a side-by-side comparison of two common heat illnesses-heat stroke and heat exhaustion-and outlines the appropriate responses for each.

Keep in mind that some COVID-19 symptoms are similar to heat-related illness. If you or a worker are experiencing such symptoms, stop working and seek the appropriate medical care.

For more information on heat stress, visit our heat stress resources.


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