During the summer season, field employees in the sign industry confront significant safety challenges working under the added strain of hot weather. According to the National Weather Service, heat stress is the leading cause of fatalities among all weather-related factors. US Department of Labor statistics on heat-related deaths are dominated by fatalities of employees engaged in outdoor operations, including highway workers, landscaping workers, construction workers, roofers and concrete workers. Likewise, sign company field workers face the same hazardous conditions.
According to the US Global Change Research Program, average summertime temperatures in the US are on the rise. The number of days nationwide per year on which high temperatures exceed 95° F (35° C) has increased substantially during the past 20 years. Because summer heat is increasing gradually from year to year, however, outdoor workers and their supervisors may be unaware that this increase often translates to summertime heat indices exceeding the physiological limit for extended human exposure. Furthermore, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), when people are working in full sunshine – as commonly occurs on sign installation projects – this boosts the temperature reported by the weather service (which is measured in the shade) by up to 15° F. Likewise, working inside of confined spaces – another common practice for sign industry field employees – represents a key factor exacerbating heat exposure due to the absence of air movement. For example, when a sign company technician works inside of a large cabinet sign in 90° heat, the temperature inside of the sign can exceed 130° F.
When the ambient air temperature – or the higher temperatures experienced when working under extreme conditions – exceeds the human body’s normal temperature range of approximately 96-98° F, an outdoor worker is unable to cool down. Additionally, when relative humidity is high, perspiration fails to cool the body because the surrounding air is too damp to evaporate body moisture. When the body cannot shed excess heat, the internal temperature rises and the heart rate increases. This condition can lead to heat cramps, heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke.
BEATING THE HEAT
The General Duty Clause [Section 5(a)(1)] of the Occupational Safety Act of 1970 ascribes responsibility to employers for providing their employees with a place of employment “free from recognizable hazards likely to cause death or serious harm.” Thus, sign company organizations are obliged to implement policies and corresponding daily practices to ensure their employees are prepared to work safely through the summertime heat.
OSHA prescribes the triad of “Water, Rest and Shade” as key elements in its program to reduce the incidence of heat-related illnesses and fatalities. For sign company owners and supervisors, this means equipping trucks with filled water coolers adequate for the crew size. Because employees won’t always remember, it’s up to managers and supervisors to ensure that sufficient drinking water is available on all company vehicles. Additionally, employers should encourage their workforce to take rotating breaks during hot weather, which will give them respite from the heat. In certain cases depending on job site conditions, it’s feasible to set up temporary shading of outdoor work areas. Likewise, personnel buckets/baskets on aerial equipment can be fitted with parasols.
Projects performed in extremely hot weather generally take longer to complete or perhaps require additional manpower. This adds to the company’s cost per project and it’s important for managers to account for these higher costs when estimating summertime projects. In extreme heat, for example, a manager might opt to send two employees on service calls instead of only one. This might be necessary because of the need for employees to be supervised by coworkers when working in hot conditions. Sending the additional person might also be done to allow for alternating rest breaks.
OSHA and NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) have developed a handy online tool to assist employers and managers in assessing their risks in extremely hot weather. The search term “Heat Safety Tool – OSHA” will guide you to the relevant web page for downloading the app. This tool provides daily assessments for every US locale. If the weather is simply too hot to risk sending your crews out, always bear in mind that discretion is the better part of valor.
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