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Extreme Weather Conditions Present Hazards to Outdoor Workers

In the midst of winter in Massachusetts, the danger to public safety is the cold and snow. However, extreme weather of all kinds should be kept in mind when planning out work schedules and tasks. Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the postal service with a serious safety violation. A letter carrier in Medford, Massachusetts had died from heat-related causes in July.

The OSHA area director explained that heat stress fatalities may be prevented if you know how to recognize symptoms and respond to them properly. Though the postal service knew this information, it had not communicated it to all employees. Thus, the letter carrier likely didn’t know what his symptoms indicated.

The letter carrier had collapsed after walking five hours in 94-degree weather and died the next day from heat stroke. The heat index exceeded 100 degrees and his mail pouch weighed around 35 pounds. There was a heat advisory from the National Weather Service in effect.

An OSHA investigation discovered that postal workers were exposed to excessive heat. There was no heat stress management program in effect to address and advise mail carriers about how to identify, prevent and report symptoms of heat-related illness. The citation suggested remedies including the implementation of this program, which would be tailored to the work of letter carriers. Among other things, workers would be trained to recognize the signs of heat stroke. Delay in seeking help for heat stroke can lead to death. The proposed fine for the violation in this case was $7000.

Heat stroke occurs because of prolonged exposure to high temperatures, often in combination with dehydration. A core body temperature that exceeds 105 degrees Fahrenheit coupled with complications in the nervous system constitutes heat stroke. Symptoms include nausea, a throbbing headache, dizziness, red or hot skin, muscle weakness, nausea and vomiting, shallow breathing, seizures, unconsciousness and behavioral changes.

When heat stroke is suspected, 911 must be called immediately. The person should be moved to an air-conditioned or cool environment. Extra clothing should be removed. Every effort should be made to cool the body and get the core temperature down to 101 or 102 degrees at the core. Some ways to do this include fanning, applying ice packs and immersing the body of the afflicted person in cold water.

Extreme cold temperatures also require special precaution. Frostbite and hypothermia are of particular concern. As with heat stroke, exposure to extremely cold temperature can lead to unconsciousness or death. Frostbite, for example, is the freezing of deep layers of skin and tissue, usually in places like the hands, toes, nose and ears. Hypothermia can occur when the body’s core temperature drops only two degrees from 98.6. You can recognize it because of fatigue, drowsiness, shivering, slurred speech, and loss of motor function.

If a coworker has slowed down and lost mental alertness in an extremely cold environment (as when delivering mail or collecting garbage or other jobs that require outdoor activities in the dead of winter) you should encourage him or her to get inside or drink something warm or take a break in a warm, dry shelter. Those who may have frostbite should immediately see a medical professional and immerse the frostbitten area in warm water. Any symptoms that are severe or continue once the afflicted person has gotten into a warmer location require medical assistance.

Massachusetts employers should encourage employees to wear appropriate clothing. Working in pairs can provide added protection in extreme temperatures.

If you have been hurt on the job, an experienced Massachusetts workers’ compensation attorney may be able to help you file for benefits. Contact us by calling 800-367-0871 or using our online contact form.

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