Safety First: The Heat Is On

It's summer, and waste employers and workers must guard against heat stress.

Man, it's hot outside. It's almost 100 degrees, and we still have July and August to look forward to. Fortunately, I am inside, at Waste Expo, in a large air-conditioned exhibit hall (if you are here, say hello!). I worked up a pretty good sweat just walking outside for 10 minutes yesterday.

Most of the hard-working men and women who collect the 250 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans each year don't get to spend their day in air-conditioned comfort while the hot summer sun is beating down. They are out on their routes, throwing cans and driving trucks. They are at landfills, running bulldozers and spotting trucks.

They are inside transfer stations or recycling facilities, sorting and managing waste and recyclables. They are under trucks doing maintenance.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hundreds of workers die and thousands are injured each year due to heat-stress related conditions. Several solid waste employees have died on the job over the past few years due to heat-related conditions.

The vast majority of these workplace fatalities occur in June, July and August. These deaths sometimes occur when heat waves hit parts of the country unaccustomed to lengthy stretches of high heat and humidity.

Solid waste employers and employees need to recognize symptoms of heat-related health problems. If not addressed, a worker can go into shock and die. Members of the National Solid Wastes Management Association and the Environmental Industry Associations recently received a safety newsletter advisory on how to “beat the heat.”

The advisory reminds companies and local governments to make sure their employees: (1) drink lots of water or sports drinks; (2) wear loose-fitting, light-colored and lightweight clothing; (3) take occasional work breaks; and (4) recognize the symptoms of heat stress — such as headaches, dizziness, weakness and clammy skin. If someone exhibits such symptoms, move the person into the shade or a cooler environment, provide water, and, if necessary, call 911. On really hot days, supervisors and dispatchers play a critical role in reminding workers to drink lots of fluids.

Furthermore, although it won't prevent heat stress, employees who spend most of their days outside should also wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has lots of heat stress-related resources on its Web site (, including fact sheets and cards that can be downloaded and posted in your workplace. Many of these documents also are available in Spanish.

Although there is not a specific OSHA regulation that addresses heat stress, OSHA has cited employers under the General Duty Clause for allowing employees to be exposed to physical harm from excessively hot work environments. If you think it's hot today, it's likely to be hotter in July and August — and imagine how hot it would feel if OSHA or a state safety agency conduct visit your workplace in response to a heat-related workplace fatality or injury.

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David Biderman is general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. He oversees the organization's safety programs.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at [email protected].