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Health and Safety

   
 


Heat is not part of the job

Enjoying a slushie or a dip in the water are two ways people get relief from extreme heat on a hot summer day. The difference, while at work, is that workers often don’t have the freedom to get relief from heat which can be hazardous to their health. At work, employers control the location, method and pace of work and often don’t realize how hazardous heat stress can be for workers. However, just like any other hazard on the job, employers have legal obligations to minimize health and safety risks caused by heat. This means that employers must consider the effects of heat stress on their employees and look for ways to reduce the impacts.

When heat is combined with other stresses like hard physical work, fluid loss, fatigue, or some medical conditions, it can lead to heat-related illness, disability and even death. Symptoms of heat stress can include rashes, sunburn, cramping, fainting, excessive sweating, headache, and dizziness.

Heat can also lead to accidents resulting from the slipperiness of sweaty palms and to accidental contact with hot surfaces. As a worker moves from a cold to a hot environment, fogging of eye glasses can briefly obscure vision, presenting a safety hazard.

Although occupational health and safety legislation in Ontario does not set a “ceiling” level for workplace temperature, it does say that the temperature should be suitable for the job being performed. Therefore, minimizing the negative effect of heat on workers is the employer’s legal obligation.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour recognizes the hazard of heat stress and has developed a heat stress guideline that outlines the employer’s obligations in the workplace to develop a heat stress plan and procedure.

Joint Health and Safety Committees (JHSCs) and health and safety representatives have an important role to help prevent and reduce heat stress hazards in workplaces. For example, by doing regular inspections of the workplace, JHSCs and health and safety representatives can identify areas of concern and monitor existing precautions to prevent heat stress. Bringing forward workers’ unresolved concerns to the employer is another way for JHSCs and reps to ensure that all steps are being taken to minimize the hazard of heat in the workplace.

JHSCs or health and safety representatives also have the right to recommend actions to employers that minimize the effects of heat stress in the workplace. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) provides that employers must respond in writing to recommendations within 21 days. If the employer agrees to implement the recommendations it is obliged to provide a timetable for implementation. If it disagrees with the recommendations it must provide reasons why.

The JHSC can recommend many actions to ensure that workplace conditions are appropriate to prevent heat stress. For example, heating and air conditioning systems should be in working order and regularly maintained and inspected. Short term and long term contingency plans should be ready to go in cases of unexpected changes in workplace conditions. Safe work practices need to be considered to reduce worker exposure, ie, frequent breaks, availability of water to drink, changes in job intensity, etc. Workers should also be trained to recognize and prevent heat illnesses.

If practical, workers in hot environments should be encouraged to set their own work and rest schedules. Infrequent or irregular tasks such as emergency repairs of hot process equipment often result in heat exposure.

Employer policies regarding heat stress should be developed in consultation with the JHSC and health and safety representatives. JHSCs and health and safety representatives also have the right to participate in developing, delivering and reviewing workplace health and safety training in the workplace.

A Worker’s Role

Report, report, report! One of the obligations that a worker has under the Occupational Health and Safety Act is to report hazards to their supervisors. Follow up your complaints for a response within a reasonable time period. Document your dates of complaint and any responses received. If the issue is not resolved, or not resolved to your satisfaction, then see your union representative or worker health and safety committee member or representative.

Workers should also ensure they know, understand, and are properly trained in all health and safety policies and procedures. If not—ask and address the situation.

Workers should always report any symptoms of illness or injury caused by conditions at work—including heat stress to their employers and to the WSIB, whether or not time is lost from work.

As the mercury rises, workers, unions, JHSC members, and employers should consider the risks of heat on human health and take action to ensure that an afternoon at the workplace can be just as safe from the heat as a summer afternoon is at the beach.

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Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 100 Lesmill Rd. Toronto, ON M3B 3P8  (416) 443-8888  www.opseu.org     

 

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