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Commentary: Summer heat means time for shade, water and rest

Issue Date: July 14, 2021
By Bryan Little
Bryan Little
Giving employees access to ample water to drink in single-use cups can protect them from heat illness.
Photo/Christine Souza

Summer in California can mean long stretches of very hot weather, with days-long periods of triple-digit temperatures. Those weather conditions can be dangerous for people who work outdoors, including construction employees, roofers, gardening and landscaping employees, and of course, agricultural employees.

Protecting those employees from extreme heat is not only the right thing to do, it is required by California regulation. Keeping your employees safe and healthy also can be good for your bottom line.

Heat safety can be accomplished by observing a few simple rules.

Provide shade: Giving employees a comfortable place to seek respite from the sun might be one of the two most important actions an employer can do to protect employees from heat illness.

Shade can be natural, such as trees, or artificial, such as shade structures or shade trailers.

Regulations from the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, require employers to make shade available on demand even if temperatures do not exceed 80 degrees F, and to provide shade at all times when temperatures exceed 90 degrees F.

Shade must be easy to reach and not placed in such a way as to deter its use. Cal/OSHA generally frowns on using a tarp attached to portable toilets as a heat illness shade structure.

Enough shade must be provided to ensure that all workers on a meal or rest break may access that shade.

Employees who feel they may need to access shade to prevent overheating should be encouraged to use shade until any heat illness signs have abated, and for no less than 5 minutes.

Provide drinking water: Make sure employees have access to ample water that is appealing to drink—clean and cool—in clean, well-maintained containers that are easy for employees to access.

Water should be checked and replenished as frequently as needed, more frequently as temperatures rise.

Always provide single-use cups, because drinking ladles or drinking cups used by all is strictly forbidden by Cal/OSHA regulation.

Be sure that water available to employees is either permanently supplied or periodically replenished sufficiently to allow each employee to drink one quart per hour.

Employees and supervisors should be trained about heat hazards before they or the employees they supervise are exposed to heat: What does heat illness look like and feel like? How do people behave when they are suffering from heat illness? What should employees and supervisors do when someone seems to be suffering from heat illness?

FELS Labor Management Consultants can train your employees and supervisors, and FELS sells heat illness training videos if you're more inclined to do it yourself. Cal/OSHA also provides training resources at under Heat Illness Prevention.

Employees who have been working in cooler climes need 14 days to acclimatize to hotter conditions, as do employees who are experiencing hot conditions for the first time in a given season.

When the temperature exceeds 95 degrees F, consider shifting the workday to start earlier in the morning and finishing before the hottest part of the day.

If you still must work in extreme heat, supervisors and coworkers should watch closely for signs of heat illness. Make sure you have the means to reliably call for help if someone gets sick. For agricultural employees, institute a mandatory 10-minute rest period every two hours.

Have an emergency plan. If someone experiences heat illness, what will you do? Have contingencies in mind for knowing your communications work, meaning good cellular service or radio communication. Summon emergency services and ensure emergency services providers can find your worksite if you're in a remote area. Determine who will be prepared to render first aid and who will remain with the sick person at all times.

Have a written plan for how you will protect your employees from extreme summer heat and comply with Cal/OSHA's Heat Illness Prevention regulation; the Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Prevention regulation requires you to have a written plan.

You can find heat illness resources such as a sample written plan at Heat Illness Safety Resources on FELS' website. You can also imbed your heat illness prevention plan in your written Injury and Illness Prevention Program; FELS can provide a personalized IIPP, along with a Respiratory Protection Program and other safety programs and resources in our HR Compliance Manual that we can customize for your business.

Your employees will thank you for shade, water, opportunities to rest and peace of mind when the mercury soars this summer, and they'll be able to work safely year-round.

(Bryan Little is the director of employment policy for California Farm Bureau and the chief operating officer of Farm Employers Labor Service, a Farm Bureau affiliate.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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