Silica is an extremely common mineral compound found throughout numerous industries and applications across the globe. It exists in nature primarily as quartz, although in many areas it is a major component in sand. It is the second most common mineral in the earth’s crust. Occupationally, it affects approximately 2.3 million individuals in the United States alone. Any occupation which involves the handling or use of rock, brick, or sand, or participates in drilling, quarrying, or tunneling carries the risk of silica exposure. Inhaling crystalline silica dust can lead to debilitating and fatal lung cancers and diseases, most notably silicosis.
What Is Silicosis?
Silicosis is a lung affliction caused by breathing dust which contains fine particles of crystalline silica. If silica particles are inhaled, they become embedded in the lungs. The lung tissues then react by developing fibrotic nodules and scarring around the trapped particles. The scar tissue makes the lungs hard and stiff. This scarring can greatly reduce the function of the lungs, making it difficult and sometimes painful to breathe.
Silicosis comes in three forms:
Chronic silicosis: The most common form of the disease, it may go undetected for years in the early stages. Chest X-rays may not reveal an abnormality until after 15 or 20 years of exposure. If you believe you are overexposed to silica dust, visit a doctor who knows about lung diseases. The progress of silicosis can only be stopped; but cannot be cured.
Accelerated silicosis: This type of silicosis tends to develop between 5 and 10 years after an exposure to high concentrations of crystalline silica dust. Examinations through x-rays and symptoms are often similar or exactly the same as chronic silicosis, but appear faster and accelerate quickly (hence the name).
Acute silicosis: Acute silicosis appears relatively rapidly after exposure to extreme amounts crystalline silica dust. There are recorded cases of patients showing signs of acute silicosis mere weeks after exposure. In these cases, symptoms are disabling and develop very quickly, including shortness of breath, weight loss, cough, and often imminent death.
Because of its abundance in nature, the use of silica has been in practice since ancient times in various applications. Its health risks – those that come primarily with exposure to silica dust inhalation – were first documented in 1700 by Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini (the man often credited with the advent of occupational medicine) when he recognized symptoms of silicosis in stone cutters.
Much later, in the early 1900s, Dr. Alice Hamilton saw the same connections between silicosis and the dust being inhaled by granite cutters. This discovery and the engineering demands that followed would eventually set in motion a gradually increased awareness of silica dangers across the globe. Today, occupational health and safety agencies all across North America strictly enforce regulations which limit and protect workers from silica dust exposure.
Symptoms of Silicosis
Because in many cases silicosis does not develop for several years after exposure, patients may be slow to experience symptoms. This is why respirable silica dust exposure is so dangerous – there is very little to inform a worker there’s a problem until it’s too late. Once developed, symptoms may include:
Shortness of breath, worsened by physical exertion
Persistent and severe cough
Weight loss and lack of appetite
Dark spots appearing in nail beds
Eventually, as the lungs’ ability to perform efficiently wanes, silica patients may require the support of oxygen-supplying or other respiration-assistance devices.
The three types of silicosis each affect the lungs in a slightly unique way:
Chronic silicosis will involve lung swelling and expansion of lymph nodes in the chest, which leads to difficulty breathing.
Patients of acute silicosis will experience severe inflammation of the lungs as well as the introduction of fluid, which creates severe loss of breath and lowered levels of blood oxygen.
The lungs of an accelerated silicosis patient will experience the same symptoms as chronic silicosis, except they will develop must faster.
There is no known cure for silicosis, but it is 100 percent preventable. Treatment options are also limited, as physicians ordinarily simply instruct workers to permanently remove themselves from exposure zones, avoid respiratory irritants, and quit smoking. Silicosis often comes with respiratory infections, so antibiotics may also be prescribed.
That said, the best way to avoid the horrific and debilitating consequences of silicosis is to prevent it from occurring altogether. Employers who are involved with the use and handling of silica in the workplace are required by law to install various measures to ensure worker exposure is below a dangerous level, and it is the workers’ responsibility to abide by those measures.
Engineering controls such as ventilation systems, work displacement, or substitution with an equal-yet-less-hazardous material may be used. Workers should comply with and respect any installed systems. Handling dust properly when it’s created is also important. Dust should never be cleaned with air or other procedures which could reintroduce it into the breathable atmosphere – use wet cleaning methods instead.
Where respiratory protection is required, workers should undergo thorough medical examinations to determine their safe compatibility with respirators, and be trained in how to use, store, and maintain them.
Workers should use any on-site facilities provided, such as showers and washing stations, to ensure silica dust does not cross contaminate. A change of clothes is critical to avoid carrying silica dust home with you on your work clothes.
Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are those which affect nerves, joints, tendons, tendon sheathes, and muscles. They are often attributed to chronic pain in the forearms, wrists, hands, elbows, neck, shoulders, and lower limbs. The term RSI is rather broad because the injuries included occur due to a variety of activities, stressors, and body parts, but in general it refers to an injury manifesting as a result of force, excessive strain, rapid movements, continuous overloading, and poor ergonomics.
Estimates suggest that repetitive motion injuries cost United States businesses over $20 billion just in workers’ compensation alone. Factor in the costs of employee replacement, productivity loss, and other related expenses, and we’re talking upwards of another $100 billion.
Business costs aside, RSIs are a heavy burden to the individual as well. RSIs are painful, costly to treat, and are often times permanent. Permanent injuries put a damper on an individual’s ability to perform the jobs in which they have been trained, meaning that there may be the additional stressor of finding work in a new field.
The good news is that with the right work practices and controls, you can significantly reduce workplace hazards that contribute to RSIs.
Unfortunately, many workplaces make the mistake of designing employee workstations in a manner that accommodates a broad spectrum of workers. Although such an approach may appear to be a matter of efficiency, the question is, how exactly does this help a specific individual? A workstation that is ergonomically appropriate for one employee may not be so for the next. It is important that the workstation fits the employee, not the other way around.
There are dozens of ways a workstation can be designed to reduce the risks of RSIs, but the basic idea is to set it up in such a way that the need for movement is limited. For example, frequently-used desk equipment should be within easy reach, not pushed back to a location on the desk that requires an employee to stretch for it. Or, for a worker operating a piece of machinery – are the controls located in a position that requires the worker to bend down every time they need to input a command? If so, how can you alter the workstation or equipment design to accommodate the worker?
Following safe work practices is the primary key to employee safety. Preventing RSIs is just one of many safety benefits of careful, health-minded behaviors. Some examples are:
Operate equipment and tools according to manufacturer instructions. When a tool can be replaced with one with ergonomically-beneficial properties, do so. For example, for work tasks where installing screws and nails is involved, pneumatic hand tools or electric screwdrivers may be desirable over manual tools that require repetitive twisting or bending at the wrist.
Follow proper lifting techniques. Lift heavy objects slowly and smoothly, as jerky movements can cause muscle injuries. Face the object – do not twist your body, especially during the actual lifting action. Keep the object close to your body with your feet apart and facing forward, lifting with your legs and not your back. Always consider the weight of the load before you attempt to lift it; ask for help or lift the load mechanically if you believe its weight is beyond your capacity.
Take advantage of ergonomic tools at your disposal, such as anti-fatigue mats or adjustable chairs.
For desk jobs, ensure that your work station is adjusted to your needs. Set your chair to keep your back straight with your spine relaxed at its natural curve. The top of your computer monitor should be at eye level in order to prevent you from having to bend your neck. Keep all of your equipment within arm’s reach. Make sure that you face your work tasks directly by turning your chair rather than twisting at the waist. When typing, your elbows should be at your sides, your feet flat on the floor and facing forward, and your wrists straight.
It is recommended that you switch to tasks that use an entirely different muscle group on the hour. This will retain the momentum of work efficiency while allowing your muscles the opportunity to recover. If possible, employers should cross train and implement scheduled job rotations.
The risks of many RSIs become less prevalent to those who take care of themselves physically. Getting a sufficient amount of rest, maintaining a healthy diet, and getting enough exercise outside of work are all things that will contribute greatly to reducing RMI hazards.
Studies have shown that taking small hourly breaks throughout the workday offers more reparative benefits than one long break. It is important that you don’t skip breaks – take advantage of opportunities to stand, walk, stretch your muscles, close your eyes, or, depending on the severity of repetition involved in your work, stop moving altogether and rest.
As a final note, training and inspection where RSIs are concerned must be thorough and ongoing. A written RSI safety policy is a great way to start. Employees should be well enough aware of their job requirements and equipment to recognize an RSI hazard from a mile away. Employers need to conduct regular worksite inspections to:
Ensure that workers are following safe work practices. Correct unsafe behaviors right away, encouraging employee involvement in discussing more effective behaviors.
Identify hazards and determine methods by which they can be controlled or eliminated.
Creating a mentally-tranquil workplace atmosphere has incredibly beneficial returns across the board. Employees who are mentally healthy as a result of employer efforts are far more likely to be productive, have higher morale, and make significant contributions to company growth and profitability. Simon Fraser University in Canada used extensive research and data review to identify 13 psychosocial risk (PSR) factors which impact employee mental health:
1. Psychological Support
Employers who cultivate at atmosphere of support among staff regarding psychological and mental health concerns can expect to see many overall benefits in the workplace. When there is perceivable, substantial psychological support at work, affected employees are more likely to actively seek and receive the help they need to recover. This leads to increased loyalty (commitment and attachment to their job), satisfaction, mood and demeanor, engagement in optional work activities, and quality of performance.
2. Organizational Culture
This refers to a work environment built upon trust, honesty, and fairness. Such an environment is attractive to potential hires, and creates a sense of loyalty for existing employees. Without it, employees are less likely to observe and commit to safety and health policies, and may avoid reporting hazardous conditions out of fear of retaliation or unfair treatment.
3. Clear Leadership and Expectations
Effective leadership often means giving employees clear, concise directives – they know what is expected of them, how they contribute to the business, and what changes are on the horizon. It also includes leadership showing a commitment to their own personal psychological health. Benefits of this factor include higher employee morale and trust, and decreased frustration and conflict.
4. Civility and Respect
To observe decreased emotional exhaustion, fewer health problems, and less conflict and job withdrawal, it’s important to foster a work environment in which employees are respectful to each other, clients, customers, and the public. The Civility and Respect factor observes the need for esteem, care, consideration, and the acknowledgement of dignity between all individuals.
5. Psychological Competencies and Requirements
This factor refers to how well an employee’s interpersonal and emotional competencies match with a particular position. Employees are more than money-makers; they are human individuals with their own unique psychological makeups which make them strong in some arenas, and stressed in another. Employees should be fitted to positions and responsibilities that reflect their strengths, as making unreasonable demands outside of their individual capacities can hurt both the employee and the business.
6. Growth and Development
An employer committed to workplace mental health will take part in its employees’ career growth. This is done through encouragement and support where the development of an employee’s skillset is concerned. Without the challenge of improvement, employees will become bored and complacent, causing their well-being and performance to suffer.
7. Recognition and Reward
It’s no surprise that recognition and reward can be major contributing factors to employee performance when provided in a fair and timely manner. Everyone appreciates having their efforts recognized and compensated fairly. Recognition leads to higher self-esteem and a motivation to go above and beyond the minimum requirements. Employees who are not appreciated by their leaders quickly lose confidence and trust, as they may feel there is little reason to excel if it’s perceived that no one cares.
8. Involvement and Influence
Employees who feel as though their suggestions and input are meaningful and taken seriously may be more engaged with higher morale and organizational pride. If a company fails to find ways to involve its employees in measurable ways, it may find a workforce littered with indifference, burnout, and cynicism.
9. Workload Management
Another surefire way to see employees throw their hands up in defeat is to ask for more than what is reasonable. A successful company knows the importance of delivering realistic goals – those which are achievable within the time frame allotted. Surprise deadlines are to be expected, but for the most part, employees should be able to attain the satisfaction that comes from clocking out on time having effectively met their daily goals.
Employee engagement refers to being physically, emotionally, and/or cognitively engaged in one’s career. A profitable workforce has employees who make strong connections to the work they’re doing, whether it’s a matter of satisfying physical exertion, emotional commitment, or strong focus. These types of employees lead to customer satisfaction, higher morale, enhanced motivation, and proven increases to the bottom line.
Very rarely is an individual defined exclusively by their careers. Those on your payroll leave work to be with their families, foster friendships, and pursue personal hobbies. When work demands interfere with other aspects of an employee’s life, those aspects begin to suffer, and the resulting emotional turmoil can spill over into the workplace. That’s why it’s important to recognize the value of a work-life balance, and allow for it through compassion and flexibility.
12. Psychological Protection
When an employee knows their employer is committed to protecting their psychological health, it means know they can act in good faith without fear. If an employee fears retaliation as a result of requesting feedback, reporting problems, asking questions, or offering ideas, they will view their workplace as hostile and volatile. This will lead to stress-related illness, regulatory risks, and negligence.
13. Protection of Physical Safety
All businesses are required by law to provide a safe and healthful workplace. This means making a concerted effort to recognize and eliminate known or potential safety and health hazards, and equipping employees with the tools and skills they need to be safe. Such a commitment not only eliminates the fear of injury felt by undertrained and unprotected workers, but critically reduces the astronomical costs associated with workplace injuries and incidents.
The last several decades have seen an increase in unhealthy lifestyle epidemics, such as poor nutrition, smoking, frequent alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise. As a result, chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are more prevalent than ever, and are creating a significant burden on workplaces across the country. Many business are noticing that poor lifestyle choices are contributing to increases in health-related work expenses, reduced productivity, and more frequent days of missed work.
Although the impacts of health and wellness on the workplace are evident, many employers still resist the idea of implementing a workplace wellness program because most of the benefits are intangible or not immediately apparent, making them hard to measure where the bottom line is concerned. Understandably, it’s difficult to convince someone with a budget to invest money into a program from which there isn’t an abundantly clear and scheduled return.
According to Corporate Wellness Magazine, employers receive an average of $3.48 back for every dollar spent on employee wellness. Based on the fact that almost 90 percent of all health care costs are preventable, that number appears conservative. The dollar amount comes from the combined benefits of basic employee health, increased moral and happiness, increased productivity, reduced annual healthcare premiums, and reduced absenteeism.
Having a wellness program in place also contributes to the image and employee retention aspect of a business. Wellness programs are an attractive employer benefit for potential quality recruits, and fostering the kind of healthful, happy environment they tend to afford may keep strong employees around longer.
Even though the benefits of a workplace wellness program are clear, Employee Benefits News (EBN) recently conducted a survey of 245 benefits managers, administrators, and human resources professionals, which found that only 44 percent of those included were running a wellness program. Considering evidence supporting the effectiveness of successful implementation, that number seems rather low. The time to develop a workplace wellness program is now. Such a program oriented on employee health is a considerable tool in creating a long-term worker asset management strategy.
The two essential components of a successful workplace wellness program are implementation and longevity. Before you can implement, you want to determine the needs of your unique workplace. This involves scrutinizing the overall attitude and preference of your employees and may be achieved through information-gathering techniques such as confidential surveys, suggestion boxes, or one-on-one interviews.
Once needs have been identified, you need to determine the wellness program activities most appropriate for your employees. It is often recommended to include a combination of education programs and physical activity. Based on the employees’ needs and your long-term business goals, some examples may include monthly nutrition workshops, lectures from local health experts (like nutritionists, gym trainers, or health practitioners), walk-and-talk meetings, on-site fitness centers, vending machines with healthy snack options, and company sports teams. As you prepare to launch your program, remember to properly communicate the program and its resources to your employees with posters, newsletters, and bulletins. Your program can be tweaked and altered as you monitor and evaluate results and employee response over time.
Finally, in order to see that desired return on your investment into a workplace wellness program, it’s important to encourage employees to see their wellness goals all the way to the end and to maintain them for the long term. The most common method of achieving wellness longevity in the workplace is to implement incentive programs. Reasonable monetary rewards, company merchandise (like clothing or mugs), paid time off, and contributing to healthcare savings accounts are all good ways to encourage your employees to sustain their health-driven efforts and help your wellness program succeed.
The burden of protecting employees from and responding appropriately to sexual harassment is one which falls upon the employer. It is part of an employer’s larger responsibility to provide a safe and healthful workplace. Although there is a clear legal obligation involved, squashing workplace sexual harassment can protect an employer from its harmful business implications such as low morale, decreased productivity, and the high costs of litigations.
Workplace sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome verbal or physical advance of a sexual nature which creates an offensive, intimidating, or hostile work atmosphere. Guilty parties may be supervisors, managers, co-workers, and even outside sources such as vendors and customers under certain circumstances. Basically, any conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace can be defined as sexual harassment if even a single employee is made to feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that employers are still responsible for managing sexual harassment even outside of the workplace should it occur in a work-related capacity (such as a work party or other function).
In general, workplace sexual harassment falls under two categories:
Quid Pro Quo: This is when the harasser makes employment decisions based on the victim’s favorable reaction to the sexual harassment. It is quid pro quo if an employer explicitly or implicitly suggests submission is a condition for employment (e.g. “I will hire you if you sleep with me”), or uses how the victim responds as a factor in their current employment (e.g. “You turned me down for a date, and so you will not receive this promotion”).
Hostile Environment: Most reported cases of sexual harassment fall under this category. When someone in a work environment shows conduct of a sexual nature, such as unwelcome touching, speaking, requests, or advances, or the display or sharing of sexual material, it has the potential to turn the environment into one which feels hostile to other employees. While these type of sexual harassment does not directly affect a victim’s employment or potential opportunities, it is a tremendous offense against respect and dignity, and to the individual’s ability to perform work to their best ability. It may also indirectly affect their employment in that they may choose to resign and seek employment in a less toxic environment.
Although the overwhelming majority of workplace sexual harassment claims are made by women (over 90 percent of Canadian women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work at some point in their careers), it is not gender neutral. Men can also be harassed by women, and both can be harassed by the same sex.
Common examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:
Demanding physical affection, even if it’s not explicitly sexual (e.g. hugs, or kisses on the cheek)
Ignoring rejection and persisting that an individual goes on a date with you
Making sexual comments about someone’s clothing, actions, behavior, or physical attributes
Making jokes of a sexual nature
Requesting sexual favors in exchange for a reward or benefit (e.g. I’ll work your shift for you if you kiss me)
Insulting someone with gender-related derogatory words
Commenting on someone’s behavior because it does not conform to gender stereotypes (i.e. an effeminate man, or vice versa)
Discussing sexual encounters or prowess amongst your coworkers
Taking pornographic images (real, cartoon, or otherwise) and posting them at work, sharing them online to a work-related bulletin, or e-mailing them to coworkers
Let’s look at a couple of real-world scenarios:
Scenario 1: Someone in your workplace jokes that a female co-worker, recently promoted to a higher position, obtained her advancement by way of “sleeping her way to the top.” Perhaps she isn’t aware of this gossip, but it can still have a devastating impact on her image and status amongst her peers – you must put an end to it.
Scenario 2: A courier who delivers products regularly to your place of business makes unwelcome and persistent advances on the person who receives the deliveries. Even though the courier isn’t a direct employee of your business, as an employer it is your responsibility to intervene by speaking with the courier or using a different service.
What can you do?
A written sexual harassment policy is arguably the strongest tool you have as an employer. You’ll need to tailor it specifically to your individual workplace, but collecting employee concerns and reviewing previous reports with HR is a good place to start. Developing an employee handbook for employees to review upon hire will also equip them with necessary information and inform them of expectations from the get-go.
Your policy must clearly define sexual harassment. Establish commitment to zero tolerance, and inform employees of consequences should they fail to meet expectations. The policy should also include procedures for employees to follow when they need to file a sexual harassment complaint, and explain that all complaints will be thoroughly investigated. Assure employees that there is no risk for retaliation at any level for filing a complaint.
Additionally, use your policy to schedule sexual harassment training at least annually. Employees should be trained on the nature of sexual harassment and their right to a harassment-free workplace, as well as how to go about filing a complaint. Management and supervisors should be trained on handling complaints, recognizing sexual harassment across the spectrum, and how to properly intervene. Employee and management/supervisor training should be conducted separately.
For help developing a workplace sexual harassment policy, contact us here.
As an employer, your greatest responsibility is that of your workers’ well-being. Moral and ethical obligations aside, you are required by law to provide a safe and healthful workplace for your employees, where their protection from harm is paramount. Such a workplace is achieved through ongoing process and safety training, comprehensive workplace safety programs, effective hazard control installations and initiatives, and the overall fostering of a positive safety culture. Safety must be the foundation of every activity in your organization, because not only is it the keystone of productivity and profitability, but a responsibility for which you are expressly liable.
The guarantee of a safe workplace was originally granted by the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970. It was designed to provide a set of broad guidelines which employers must follow to achieve maximum safety compliance. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) upholds the OSH Act by representing and enforcing standards that finely detail employer safety responsibilities and protect employee safety rights. A large part of this enforcement includes workplace auditing, report investigation, and citation for safety violations. In many cases, OSHA (along with other federal entities which oversee the management of niche hazards, such as the Department of Transportation) is the primary body which ensures employers are held accountable for their workers’ lives.
The OSH Act covers penalties which can occur a result of safety compliance violations. According to Section 17 (Penalties), employers who willfully or repeatedly violate safety requirements imposed by the Act can be fined a penalty of up to $70,000 for each violation, with a minimum fine of $5,000. The section goes on to detail a variety of circumstances under which employers can receive fines with dollar amounts based on the severity and frequency of safety infractions. While seemingly harsh and unforgiving, once again these provisions are in place to ensure appropriate consequences for employers who fail to prioritize safety in the workplace.
Remember that OSHA fines and penalties are a direct connection to employer liability; these consequences fall in addition to the myriad blows to a business’ bottom line. Damaged reputation, reduced moral, Workers’ Compensation premium increases, lost time, backlogged productivity, and possible litigations make failing to enforce safety a catastrophic shortcoming.
In addition to the general penalties it details, the OSH Act’s Section 666 provides that criminal sanctions are possible through the Department of Justice when a worker is seriously injured or killed as a result of an employer’s willful violation of safety provisions. The penalty comes with up to six months of imprisonment and fines for individuals up to $250,000. Organizations can be fined up to $500,000.
In the end, the wide variety of complicated and varied consequences of noncompliance come back to one very simple point: do everything in your power to protect your employees from harm. Although the minutia will depend on the unique characteristics of your organization, creating a safe and healthful workplace can be achieved by employing the following key workplace elements:
Training: Training is by far the most valuable tool at your disposal as an employer. Not only does it give workers the skills and knowledge they need to help make your business profitable, it teaches them about the nature of workplace hazards and how to disarm, minimize, or altogether avoid them. Keep in mind that many liability lawsuits have arisen from negligence occurring after training; formal initial training is not enough. You must ensure that workers are supervised by qualified personnel when they officially begin work, and monitored closely for as long as it takes to ensure they can expertly and safely execute the elements of their training.
Hazard Investigation: Safety is a proactive process. Do not wait for a hazard to manifest – you must track it down and neutralize it before it has the opportunity to do harm. This includes hazard analyses and incident investigations, all of which should be documented and filed for both compliance and future use.
Employee Involvement: It should be abundantly clear to your employees that they have a stake in their own safety. It is against the law to discipline or retaliate against a worker who reports unsafe work conditions, or refuses to perform work under those conditions. Creating an atmosphere in which employees feel they can safely participate in bringing hazards to your attention will result in a tremendous swell of involvement.
Workplace Safety Program: It’s important to have written documentation on file which covers all items related to workplace procedures. This includes operations, responsibilities at all employee levels from the bottom to the top, identification, protection from, and control of hazards, and expectations. Should an injury occur, you will want as much written proof as possible that your organization has identified and implemented all necessary actions towards protecting its employees. This can be a large task, but its value is immeasurable.
With cooler temperatures setting in and winter proper right around the corner, workers around the country are facing a uniquely seasonal variety of injuries known as “cold stress.” Although cold stress is possible any time of year, cold weather along with a number of other environmental factors can expose unprepared workers to extreme bodily harm, and even death. Before it gets any colder, now is a good time for businesses to examine their cold stress prevention policies to ensure employees have the tools, knowledge, and training they need to stay warm and work safely.
Awareness and preparedness are the two critical elements of cold stress prevention. It’s important to understand how the human body maintains and regulates its temperature, and how to recognize the warning signs which develop when those systems are failing. Because a variety of factors contribute to cold stress injuries – not just extreme temperatures alone – a worker could be suffering even if it doesn’t seem all that cold outside; having the skills to spot symptoms outside of expected conditions could be crucial for someone’s survival.
Though the right conditions can put anyone at risk, there are some occupations which, by their very nature, put workers in a position to be more frequently exposed to cold weather. These occupations can include sanitation, outdoor construction, snow removal, law enforcement, and emergency response (i.e. firefighters and emergency medical crews).
Conditions (aside from low temperatures) which increase the risk of cold stress include:
Moisture or damp clothes
Time of day (specifically, how much sun warmth is present)
Dehydration and physical exhaustion
Age (your body does not regulate temperature as efficiently as you get older)
Certain health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes
Poor or ineffective clothing and personal protective equipment
Lack of training
Cold stress injuries occur when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Your body tries to maintain a core temperature of 98.6°F (37°C). As you are exposed to lower temperatures, your body will prioritize its heat by taking it away from your extremities and reallocating it to the vital internal organs at your core (chest, abdomen). This is why the first places you feel cold are your fingers, toes, nose, and ears. Exposed skin (especially extremities) can quickly develop cold stress ailments such as frostbite and chilblains. Once your body’s internal temperature reaches 95°F (35°C), hypothermia will begin to set in.
Moisture is the enemy. To drive the point home, that really bears repeating – moisture is the enemy. The simplest way to understand this concept is to consider our body’s primary self-cooling function: perspiration. When the body needs to cool itself down, it expels moisture through the pores. Firstly, moisture conducts heat 25 percent faster than air, carrying it from the body. Then, the heat is carried away further when the sweat evaporates. So if the human body is using moisture as a life-saving measure to remove heat, imagine how detrimental it would be if the body were already cold.
Wind isn’t much better than moisture. Your body naturally radiates heat, leaving what we’ll call a thin “heat shield” over your skin. Moving air acts as a conductor, blowing the heat shield away and forcing your body to expend precious energy in order to produce a new one. This works much in the same way as blowing on your hot soup before you eat it – the moving air cools the soup down faster. You’ve probably heard your local television weather anchors discuss “wind chill,” which is a function to describe how cold it feels after actual outside temperature and wind speeds are calculated together. The greater the wind speeds, the colder it feels.
Now that we have an idea how our bodies work in the cold, what are some ways we can protect workers from cold stress?
Dressing properly is probably the most important step you can actively take to prevent cold stress. Wear at least three layers. The inner-most layer should be made of wool (or another animal fiber), silk, or a synthetic/synthetic blend to absorb and keep moisture away. The middle layer should be animal fiber or synthetic for the insulation properties, even when wet. The outermost layer should allow for ventilation and built for protecting against wind and rain. Avoid cotton.
Engineering controls are ways for an employer to set up and design a work space to eliminate or minimize a hazard. In cold-weather situations, engineering controls can include radiant heaters, indoor heated rest areas, and even erecting barriers to protect workers from the wind.
In some areas of the country, the dead of winter comes with brutal winter chill 24 hours a day. Employers can still monitor the weather and attempt to schedule work during the warm(est) times of day.
Safe Work Practices
Promoting safe behavior during the work day can go a long way. Provide warm, sweet liquids while avoiding caffeine or other diuretics which could contribute to dehydration. No one should ever work alone; workers should be scheduled with at least one buddy, as it’s sometimes easier to recognize cold stress symptoms in others than in yourself. New employees, or those unaccustomed to working in extreme temperatures, should be acclimated slowly through gradual schedule increases and rest time decreases (start them with more frequent breaks).
Ultimately, formal training is the way to go. Never send a worker into a cold environment without the knowledge they need to keep themselves and others safe. Workers should know how to prevent and recognize cold stress illnesses, and how to address them with first aid should they appear. For more safety and training resources for cold stress prevention, visit www.safetyservicescompany.com.
As we transition to warmer temperatures, it’s important to revisit your workplace’s Heat Illness Prevention Program to ensure your employees are equipped to combat heat-related stress and illnesses. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related fatalities in the United States despite the fact that most heat-related deaths are preventable.
Average high temperatures have seen a steady increase across the country over the past couple of decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) anticipates that average temperatures will continue to increase, and heat waves will become more frequent and impactful. This prediction should encourage all businesses to look at how their employees are exposed to high temperatures, and what they can do to accommodate.
Businesses with employees who perform work in moderate to high temperatures or humid conditions, especially where increased heart rate and perspiration are concerned, must be given the necessary tools to recognize, understand, and prevent heat stress illnesses.
Essentially, heat stress prevention comes down to workplace design, employee training, and effective work procedures. Design and procedures will vary greatly depending on geographical location and the type of work being performed. Businesses should keep in mind that heat stress can occur regardless of the time of year, in both outdoor and indoor conditions. Required personal protective equipment (PPE) can also have a significant impact on the body’s ability to expel heat. Workers involved with hazardous waste operations or asbestos removal, for example, are often required to wear impermeable protective equipment which can trap heat close to the body. A thorough risk assessment will help businesses identify risk elements such as these.
A strong working knowledge of how the body regulates heat, and how personal factors can affect that regulation, is an extremely valuable tool in prevention. The human body needs to maintain a core temperature between 96.8 (36) and 100.4 (38) degrees Fahrenheit to function at peak performance. Weather conditions, manual labor, and personal factors can cause the core temperature to increase, which can lead to the development of a series of heat-related illnesses.
To regulate internal temperature, the body uses two basic mechanisms. The first is to increase the heart rate which assists in moving blood and heat away from vital organs to the skin. The second is perspiration, during which the body expels heat in moisture through the pores, which then evaporates and carries heat away in the process. Personal factors, such as acclimatization, caffeine and alcohol consumption, hydration replenishment, general health, age, and certain prescription medications can affect how well these mechanisms work and should be taken into consideration before performing work in high temperatures. Perspiration is the more effective of the two mechanisms, which means that proper hydration to replenish fluids lost as sweat is absolutely essential.
There are four common disorders which surface as a result of heat stress, ranging from mild discomfort to life-threatening conditions:
Heat rash is the most common ailment which occurs while working in the heat. It is also called “prickly heat.” Symptoms include red, blotchy, itchy skin, particularly in areas of the body with high perspiration, and a prickling sensation. Rashes which aren’t cleaned thoroughly and frequently may become infected. Moving to a cool environment, cleaning the affected area with cool water, and complete drying are often effective treatments.
Heat cramps occur as a result of salt being lost through perspiration. They are painful muscle spasms causing lumps in the affected muscles, usually the back, legs, and arms. The pain can be severe enough to greatly inhibit movement. Workers should cease activities to tend to cramps as soon as they feel them. Stretching and massaging the affected muscle as well as replacing salt by drinking electrolyte replacement fluids are useful techniques in tending to heat cramps.
Heat exhaustion is a dangerous result of heat stress which can lead to a heat stroke if not treated promptly with first aid. It happens when the body is so overexerted that it cannot supply blood simultaneously to vital organs and the skin for temperature regulations. Inflicted workers may experience weakness, headache, breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, faintness, or loss of consciousness. Call 911 and move workers exhibiting these symptoms to a cool place and give them water to drink. Remove any clothing that isn’t necessary and loosen other clothing. Shower or sponge them down with cool water. It will take at least 30 minutes for the body to cool down after experiencing heat exhaustion.
Heat stroke is a disorder which requires immediate medical attention, and can lead rapidly to fatality if not treated quickly. A person experiencing a heat stroke may experience confusion, hot, dry skin, high body temperatures, lack of sweating, irrational behavior, convulsions, and/or a loss of consciousness. Call 911 right away and take the victim to a cool area to immerse or shower them with cool water. Wrap them in wet sheets and fan them until you can transport them to a hospital or an ambulance arrives.
Knowledge can mean the difference between life and death during a critical victimization of heat stress. Workers should understand the nature and symptoms of heat-related illnesses both in a sense of recognizing them in themselves, and when a coworker is suffering. In many cases, a quick and efficient response can save a heat stress victim from numerous long-term effects that would have otherwise occurred had symptoms gone untreated. Proper training and a strong Heat Stress Prevention Program will help protect worker health year round.
People are physiologically programmed to sleep during the night and be active during the day. This is known as the sleep-wake cycle. Consequently, shift workers are especially prone to sleep disturbances, sleep deprivation and misalignment of the sleep-wake cycle, all of which lead to sleepiness, fatigue and associated performance deficits.
People don’t fully adapt to shift work. This is particularly true for evening work, night work and rotating shift schedules. For example, night work requires restorative sleep during the day which is often shorter, lighter and less restorative than nocturnal sleep.
Most shift working industries are required to identify, assess and control fatigue as part of their health and safety management system. This is no simple matter, particularly for personnel working in hazardous environments or performing safety critical tasks, such as heavy vehicle operators in the road transport or mining industries.
Even the best designed fatigue management plans cannot regulate sleep behaviors during rest periods or days off. Insufficient restorative sleep will increase levels of fatigue with each consecutive shift. This can be further exacerbated by rotating shifts due to the changes and disruptions in sleep/wake patterns during changeover periods.
An effective fatigue management plan should offer strategies to counteract fatigue. While the only true cure for fatigue is sleep, shift workers will need to rely on naps to maintain alertness, and caffeine can be effective to some degree depending on the individual. But keep in mind that these will only reduce the risk of a fatigue-related incident, they cannot eliminate the risk.
Technology that can objectively detect the early signs of fatigue in real-time can be used to effectively complement organizational and regulatory approaches to improve fatigue management. The ability to continuously assess operator fatigue, regardless of factors such as time-of day (sleep-wake cycle), previous amount and quality of sleep, effect of drugs or alcohol, or undiagnosed sleep disorders, would be beneficial to any fatigue management plan.
What do the Metro North derailment, Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and a few other notable aircraft incidents have in common? Fatigue. Employee fatigue played a role in all these tragedies and many more. As an employer, you must ensure your workers are not experiencing signs or effects of fatigue on the job. You can help make your workers and your business safer by including information on fatigue and sleep in your safety guidelines and orientations. You can also develop a fatigue management plan.
Fatigue is a state of feeling very tired, exhausted, weary, or sleepy. This results from a lack of sleep and can be heightened from prolonged mental activity or long periods of stress or anxiety. Boring or repetitive tasks can also intensify feelings of fatigue. Fatigue can be acute or chronic. Acute fatigue results from a sudden onset of short-term sleep loss, such as getting less sleep than normal before a work shift. Adequate sleep is necessary to reverse the effects of acute fatigue. Chronic fatigue is a long-term state that results from an extended loss of necessary sleep. A sleep debt can build over weeks or months from a reduction or disruption of a normal sleep routine.
Create shift schedules that give workers enough time for continuous sleep. If the job requires long hours or overtime, consider that your workers will need enough time for other daily activities, such as commuting, preparing and eating meals, socializing, and relaxing. Provide a work environment that has good lighting, comfortable temperatures, and reasonable noise levels.
Ensure that jobs provide some variety, with work tasks that change throughout the shift. Be flexible when assigning tasks — assign workers who may be fatigued to tasks that aren’t safety sensitive.
If your workplace has long shifts or frequent overtime, consider providing amenities, such as the following:
Facilities where workers can nap either during the shift or before driving home
People need at least 7.5 to 8.5 hours of sleep a day. Studies have found that most night-shift workers get less sleep per week than those who work day shifts. The quality of sleep during the day is not the same as during the night.
Improving Quality of Sleep
Here are some guidelines you can pass on to your workers for improving quality of sleep:
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
Turn out the light immediately when going to bed.
Don’t read or watch television in bed.
Make your room as dark and quiet as possible. Some people sleep better in a cool room.
Establish regular eating times.
Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, especially before bedtime.
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