By Heidi E. Lehmann
Heat-related injuries are both underreported and totally preventable – a perfect storm in today’s intense workplace. Environmental factors, exertion levels, and poor acclimatization can exacerbate heat-related injuries, resulting in an invisible threat to both safety and productivity. Still, safety managers in the clean energy sector are not alone in the quest to reduce injury while improving production - new technological trends in heat safety provide continuous and private monitoring of individual workers, and can significantly mitigate heat risks while saving companies money. Although heat stress is a stealthy, unseen enemy with deadly potential, monitoring core body temperature to prevent heat injuries and illnesses can increase production, reduce costs, and save lives.
Heat-related injuries are increasing in the workplace, with both immediate impacts and invisible, long-term effects. There are hundreds of millions of at-risk workers across the globe. In the U.S. alone, between 1992 and 2016, heat stress killed 783 workers and critically injured 69,374 more. These stress injuries are on the rise, with the number of worker days spent in dangerous heat conditions estimated to almost triple by 2050, for construction workers alone.
For those working in the clean energy sector, heat stress is a particular concern. Turbine workers and solar panel installers experience high levels of sun exposure, which can result in heat-related illnesses. According to the CDC, the onset of heat stroke can increase a worker’s body temperature to 106 degrees Fahrenheit within just 10-15 minutes. In fact, the U.S. military recently identified heat exposure as a significant and growing threat – with an increase of almost 60 percent in exertional heat stroke and heat exhaustion cases since 2008. High heat can also increase the risk of occupational injuries by as much as nine percent, as shown by a recent ISGlobal study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s clear that lives are at stake, both from immediate impacts such as loss of cognition, dexterity, and endurance, and long-term impacts such as chronic kidney disease and organ damage.
Workplace environment, exertion levels, and poor acclimatization can exacerbate heat-related injuries in all industries, resulting in an unseen threat to both safety and productivity. Many factors influence heat stress: type of work, environment, PPE, hydration, age, biological sex, and increasing weather extremes. In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have taken place since 2001, and an average of 2.2 million workers labor in extreme heat during the summer’s peak. And the National Weather Service reports that heat was by far the leading cause of weather fatalities over the past 30 years. Heat stress affects all workers, in particular those working in clean energy industries such as wind turbines and solar panel installation. Once heat injuries are detected by the naked eye, it’s already too late. Since most workers don’t want to raise any flags about their own health, they often wait to take a break –at that point, typical on-site treatments such as rehydrating and escaping the sun aren’t enough. And if a worker is on a roof or turbine, it will take time to reach safety. Often, by the time a worker takes him or herself out of the heat, the damage is done.
In addition to worker health and safety, productivity and operating costs are severely affected by heat-related injuries. Employers in the U.S. spend $220 billion annually on injury and illness related to excessive heat, and another $67 billion in Smart PPE and protective equipment. Only three states – California, Minnesota, and Washington – currently have OSHA heat standards in place. Surprisingly, these aren’t even the hottest states in the U.S. With the majority of states lacking OSHA heat stress standards, workers are laboring in sub-optimal conditions, with little protection or training. This exposure results in more injuries and hospitalizations, fewer worker days, and increased Worker Compensation costs. In fact, research shows that for every 10-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, there is a 393 percent increase in hospitalizations for heat exposure. One study calculated the healthcare costs of a single California heat event at $179 million. Moreover, these impacts are fully preventable, since the risk of heat injuries and illnesses can be easily monitored by measuring each individual’s physiological responses.
New technological trends in heat safety that provide continuous, private monitoring of individual workers, can mitigate heat-related health risks and save companies money. The advent of technology that monitors key physiological indicators means that there is hope for new ways to prevent and predict individual worker heat stress in the clean energy sector. Before this type of Smart PPE, companies simply looked at accidents after the fact, with little ability to predict elevated risk for individual workers. Now, new technology enables safety managers to both predict and prevent near-misses. Devices are often smaller than a cell phone and easy to wear, with no discomfort to the user. Users can review individual worker-athlete leading indicators such as heart rate, core body temperature, and sweat loss. And dashboards for each worksite team keep management informed, while maintaining individual worker privacy.
Because individual monitoring is private (with data de-identified at the management level) workers have their own window into their personal health indicators, and can pull themselves away from heat risk as needed. This is especially important for those working in difficult-to-reach locations like turbines and rooftops. Better than temperature guns, which create an immediate lack of privacy when admitting workers to the site, continuous monitoring is covert and reduces worker check-in time. If an indicator warrants intervention, management can simply speak with the worker without alerting others to the concern. Additionally, rather than reviewing a heat stress injury after it occurs, continuous monitoring allows users to predict and prevent the incident – keeping workers safer and more fit for duty, while increasing output and lowering health care expenses.
Reduced worker safety, lower productivity, and unnecessary costs are all easily preventable with improved individual monitoring of core body temperature. As increasing temperatures continue across the globe, it’s even more important that worker’s heat risk be minimized with these new and innovative continuous physiological monitoring devices. And while heat stress is a stealthy and unseen enemy with deadly potential, monitoring and preventing heat related injuries and illnesses in the clean energy sector can increase production, reduce costs, and save lives.
Heidi E. Lehmann is Chief Commercial Officer at Kenzen, a smart PPE innovator focused on physiological monitoring and the prevention of heat injury and death among workers.