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Soaring Temperatures Increase Risk of Contact Burns

Posted on 8/11/2023 by Nick Waldron

This summer heat has been relentless for both indoor and outdoor workers in 2023. As we enter the dog days of what NASA says is the hottest summer on record since 1880, the risk of heat-related illness and strategies to protect employees should be familiar to health & safety leaders.

Data from employers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that hundreds of workers have lost their lives as a result of environmental heat exposure since 2011 (BLS.gov). 

OSHA Hazard Alert: Extreme Heat Can Be Deadly to Workers

Extreme Heat and "Contact Burns"

In Phoenix, Arizona, residents recent felt air temperatures reach nearly 120 degrees. In those conditions, direct sunlight can "superheat" surfaces to 50-60 degrees hotter than the air.  

As temperatures increase, hospitals see more admissions for "contact burns." These are burns that can occur when a person's skin contacts a superheated surface, even for a short time. The more prolonged the contact with the surface, the worse the burns, which reportedly are as severe second- and third-degree.

In early July, a person in Las Vegas suffered third-degree burns after sitting on the pavement in jeans for 40 minutes while waiting for a bus (NBC News).

"OSHA does consider exposed heated surfaces, if there is a potential for injury, to be a hazard and will issue citations if employees can come into contact with such surfaces."

OSHA Letter of Interpretation, 1998

hot-doorknob-blog-(1).jpg

In addition to controls that address the environmental hazards of extreme heat, safety and IH professionals must protect employees who work in proximity to metal pipes, railings, stairways, equipment, containers, tanks, asphalt, or other surfaces that may become extremely hot when exposed to direct sunlight for an extended period of time. 

Other Risks Increase with Temperature 

The rate of workplace injury and illness overall increases 6 to 9 percent when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, compared to temperatures in the 50s or 60s.

That rate increases by 10–15% when the temperature is over 100 degrees (UCLA.edu). Incidents that seem unrelated to heat—like falling off a ladder or getting a hand caught in machinery—occur more often in high temperatures, too (Forbes).

OSHA initiated a new rulemaking (RIN 1218-AD39) to address heat illness in indoor and outdoor settings in late 2021, and aimed to begin reviewing the issue with a small business panel this month (August 2023). 

Take Action to Protect Workers

The Federal government launched Heat.gov to distribute information on the impact of extreme heat. On the site, you can find more information about who is at risk and find a variety of heat-related resources for workers.

Lion offers online OSHA Heat Illness Prevention training for supervisors and employees, in English and Spanish. The courses prepare individuals to recognize and protect themselves from the effects of heat stress, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion, and other heat-related injuries and illnesses.

Tags: Heat hazards, heat illness, osha

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