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Illinois employees at risk of harm in summer working conditions

The first day of summer 2020 has just passed with the hottest months yet to come. In Illinois, July and August can bring oppressive heat and humidity – a difficult combination from a safety and health standpoint for people who work out of doors or in indoor work settings without sufficient temperature control, especially around hot equipment or mechanical processes.

The U.S. Department of Labor published a blog post with tips for working more safely in hot conditions. The post (and information found at helpful links in the post) contains advice for employers to make hot workplaces safer. Employees who work in these conditions can use them to understand how to stay safe and bring these resources to their employers’ attention.

The tips include:

  • Provide regular access to water and beverages with electrolytes.
  • Provide an air-conditioned building, vehicle or tent for respite during breaks or at least a shaded area, preferably with misting and fans. Breaks need to be more frequent in high temperatures.
  • Pay close attention to new employees who are at a higher risk of death from heat because their bodies have not acclimated, as well as to employees engaged in heavy labor.
  • Be attentive to workers using protective equipment like some respirators and work clothing made of impermeable fabric that can increase heat risk.
  • Have managers monitor for heat-related symptoms and create a buddy system on the worksite.
  • Have robust onsite first aid and ability to contact emergency services.
  • Write a detailed heat-safety plan.
  • Think outside the box. Consider during dangerous temperatures cancelling shifts or postponing the most harmful tasks; working morning, evening and night shifts rather than during the hottest part of the day; more frequent breaks; and other adaptations logical for the particular workplace.

Examples of Illinois industries with heat-safety issues:

  • Agriculture
  • Landscaping, groundskeeping and forestry
  • Road construction
  • Excavation and mining
  • Oil and natural gas extraction
  • Surveying
  • Construction, demolition and roofing
  • Delivery services
  • Utilities
  • Outdoor entertainment
  • Laundry and dry cleaning
  • Manufacturing and industrial processes with heat-generating machinery like canneries
  • Foundries, smelters and steel milling
  • Restaurant, food service and baking
  • Fishing and river transportation
  • Airline servicing
  • Firefighting
  • Law enforcement
  • Warehousing

What injuries and illnesses can heat cause?

Many people are not aware of the extreme danger to the human body of exposure to high temperatures, which can cause conditions that may need recovery time and medical treatment, but may also cause permanent disability and even death. For example:

  • Heatstroke with extreme body temperature, heavy sweating and possible seizures, unconsciousness, delirium or confusion; without emergency medical treatment, there is potential for muscular damage, brain damage, heart injury, kidney damage and even coma or death
  • Heat cramps with severe, sharp pain, especially in muscles used for work exertion and in limbs and abdomen,
  • Heat rash (prickly heat) with clusters of bumps
  • Heat exhaustion with potential elevated heartrate, dizziness, excessive sweating, weakness, nausea or vomiting, headache, thirst, anxiety and more
  • And others

What to do if you have a heat-related injury or illness from work

First, get medical help – often these injuries require emergency services. Then, be sure your employer has notice of the injury so you can proceed with a workers’ compensation claim. Do not delay giving notice so you do not miss the deadline for doing so. Heat injuries (and deaths) that arise out of and in the course of employment are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

For example, in Dabrowski v. Masonry Restoration Group, Inc., the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC) held that Mr. Dabrowski, who was working as a masonry assistant building walls on an exposed roof when he got heatstroke and sunstroke. This caused several serious symptoms, including hyperthermia and intracerebral hemorrhage that caused his death. The employer (and its insurer) was liable for workers’ compensation death benefits to the deceased worker’s surviving minor child, burial expenses and medical costs incurred before death.

(This decision is available on Westlaw at 2012 WL 1902159.)