Literally speaking, “fighting fires” is now on the list of “new normals.” The heat wave that grappled us all earlier this summer was just the beginning. More individuals are experiencing adverse effects of heat-related illness, some of which can last for years.
CDC defines heat illness or heat stress as the outcome of an extended exposure to high temperatures. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat rashes and cramps are a few types of heat-related illnesses. In the United States, heat is the leading cause of weather-related fatalities and injuries. Historical data indicates that heat waves have resulted in more injuries and deaths than have floods and tornadoes.
The passing of Sebastián Francisco Pérez on June 26, 2021, was the first recorded death in Oregon that was specific to heat illness and farm labor. In response, Oregon passed an emergency rule shortly thereafter to address current outdoor working conditions. According to the new rule, when the heat index is 90°F or higher, employers must provide a 10-minute cool-down rest period in the shade for every two hours of work. The rest area must be as close as practical to the work area. Employers must also provide enough cool or cold water for every employee to drink a quart for each hour on the job. Supervisors also must monitor workers for symptoms of heat illness.
Washington, California, and Minnesota are the only other states to address heat stress and establish heat-related illness standards. Crop and construction workers, compared with other front-line workers, are at a higher risk of being affected by heat illnesses, given the nature of their work.
Although occupational safety is separate from food safety management, both facets of public health and safety intersect. Here are a few ways for food safety managers and supervisors to be proactive about preventing heat-related illness.
As with food safety, occupational safety begins with creating an awareness and demonstrating best practices. Helping employees and managers recognize the initial signs and symptoms of heat stress is a good starting point. Enabling supervisors to monitor shifts, breaks, access to shaded break areas with water, first aid kits, etc. are a few areas that would need to be prioritized.
Planning and preparing for heat waves will not only protect the crop workers, but the crops and livestock as well. Allocating the right resources (drinking water, rest areas, manpower, etc.) can be carried out efficiently through forecasting. Studying historical data and analyzing current weather patterns will help make better informed decisions on the field.
Communicating Emergency Response Procedures
Standard operating procedures don’t just belong in a binder. Communicating them in a manner that is easy to comprehend, integrating them with employee onboarding programs, and frequently briefing the workforce with clarity, will drastically improve response times to unforeseen emergencies.
An example of this would be demonstrating how to contact emergence response providers (such as an ambulance) and how to ensure they reach the site without any hindrance. For instance, during a mock call to emergency service providers, employees can be asked to communicate the site’s location, describe the symptoms accurately, not leave the affected individual’s side, or contact their supervisors. It’s always best practice to walk both the employees and supervisors through the necessary documents that need to be filled while reporting an incident.
The effects of climate change are here to stay, and heat-related illness will continue to be on the rise. What are some strategies you have implemented as a food safety professional? Comment below!