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
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
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.
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.