With record temperatures in the forecast, you need to remind your work crews of the dangers of heat stress. An estimated 220 workers in Canada and the US die annually from occupational heat stress.  Trust me, this is the last thing you want for any of your own workers.

Educating Workers about Heat Stress

Heat illness doesn’t strike without warning. There are signs and symptoms associated with each of the various forms of heat illness—heat cramps, heat exhaustion and, most dangerous of all, heat stroke (we’ll refer to these illnesses collectively as “heat stress”). The problem is that supervisors and workers aren’t always attuned to these signs. As a result, they lose the chance to help themselves or their co-workers. Or, they actually do something to make the situation worse—like drink a couple of cans of beer when they’re feeling fatigued and overheated.

That’s why it’s essential to educate any of your workers and supervisors who work in hot conditions about the dangers of heat stress. A vital part of this education is to familiarize them with the signs and symptoms of the different forms of heat illness and how to react if those signs and symptoms appear. Such education isn’t just required by law; it can be the difference between life and death.

Chronicle of a Preventable Death

This is not hyperbole. Here’s an example how a company’s failure to provide education about heat stress directly contributed to a worker’s tragic death. And it comes not from some desert or sunbelt setting but, of all places, Canada.

The story takes place in the province of Newfoundland. It’s spring 1992. Anthony Dalton and Ronald Morrissey are trained boilermakers and good friends. They decide to take a job in the almost neighboring province of New Brunswick repairing pipes in a paper mill. Here’s a chronicle of what happens next:

May 20, 1992: Dalton and Morrissey report for their first day of work. The temperatures outside are high for May—34.44° C (94° F) and 35% humidity. It’s even hotter in the mill where chemicals are heated in enclosed spaces—especially on the scaffolds where Dalton and Morrissey are working. Nobody tells them anything about the dangers of heat stress. Later, the contractor will testify that he assumed that trained boilermakers would know all about heat stress. It turns out to be a tragically flawed assumption.

Dalton and Morrissey work all day in the heat. Dalton starts experiencing fatigue. It’s the first warning of danger. But since neither man knows anything about the signs of heat stress, it goes unrecognized.

May 21, 1992: The outdoor temperature has climbed to 37.22° C (99° F). Humidity is at 33%. The heat and hard work in the mill continue. Dalton and Morrissey work the entire day. Dalton is getting worse. When the two get back to their motel after work, Dalton starts experiencing muscle cramps. He’s exhausted. He passes out on the bathroom floor of the motel room. He drinks a beer, not realizing that the last thing somebody in his condition should do is drink alcohol. 

May 22, 1992: It’s even hotter today—38.33° C (101° F). Dalton is still exhausted but decides to drag himself to work. He spends the morning inside one of the tanks helping to build a scaffold. He’s in big trouble. After afternoon break, he tells the supervisor that he’s just too exhausted to go back to work. He sits on the floor with his back against the base of a column. When the shift ends, he can barely stand up. He’s incoherent. He stumbles about 100 metres and finally collapses. Even now, nobody knows what’s wrong. The ambulance takes Dalton to the hospital. But it’s too late. Dalton dies of heat stroke the next day.

The Moral

Perhaps the saddest part of the death of Anthony Dalton is that it could have been prevented. There was ample warning: Dalton’s fatigue, the cramps, his passing out on the bathroom floor, etc. Anybody attuned to the signs of heat stress would have recognized what was going on and acted while there was still time. Tragically, because none of the workers or supervisors with whom Dalton worked had received any education on heat stress, every opportunity to save him was missed.