Farm employee management: Protecting farm workers during the hot days of summer
Each summer, farm producers and their employees may be working through days of extreme heat and humidity. This kind of weather can occur anytime from mid-May and into September. Whenever hot weather conditions occur, farm owners and supervisors should be conscious of how to protect themselves and all farm workers during these stressful weather conditions.
Heat can cause illness and sometimes even death. Several years ago Occupational Safety and Health Administration established a “Heat Illness Prevention Campaign” to raise awareness and provide education and resources for farm employers and employees. A link to these web-based resources will be provided at the end of this article.
In our modern farm operations, many farm employees work in conditions where shade, ventilation and, perhaps even air conditioning, are regularly provided. Nevertheless, during hot and humid weather, workers move in and out of conditions that can cause heat illness if the situation is not monitored. Spraying operations, feeding and moving livestock, working in hay and silage-chopping operations all require physical labor where risks of heat illness exist. It’s also important to remember that many of today’s farm employees may lack previous farm or other outdoor employment experience, so dealing with weather-related conditions may be new to them, not to mention the difference among individuals who may or may not be acclimatized to high heat conditions. Particular employees - older workers, those who are overweight or have heart-related medical conditions - may have an even higher-than-average sensitivity to heat.
In general, farm workers can become overheated in one of two ways - either the heat from the environmental conditions in which they work; or by generating internal heat by physical labor.
Less serious forms of heat-related illness include heat exhaustion, fainting, heat cramps and heat rash. These conditions should be taken seriously as they can quickly progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability. Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its internal temperature, the body temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down – the body temperature can quickly rise to 106 degrees or higher. Heat stroke symptoms include hot, dry skin or profuse sweating, hallucinations, chills, throbbing headache, high body temperature, confusion or dizziness and slurred speech. First aid should include the following steps:
- Call 911.
- Move the employee to a cool shaded area and fan the body.
- Cool the worker by soaking, spraying, sponging or showering them with water.
Farm owners and supervisors should manage employee work conditions where heat stress may occur. Possible considerations include:
- Acclimatize new employees to hot work/weather conditions by exposing them for progressively longer periods.
- When possible, schedule hot jobs for the cooler part of the day - and where preventative maintenance and repair jobs may occur in hot areas, schedules these tasks for cooler months
- Tasks that require physical exertion during hot conditions should either be scheduled during the cooler part of the day - or provide more frequent-than-usual rest and cool-off periods. Assigning extra employees to reduce the workload may also help.
- Provide workers with rest periods in cool or shaded areas and provide cool water or liquids to employees.
- Where enclosed areas are not air-conditioned, provide adequate fans and ventilation to assure air movement.
- Encourage employees to consume sufficient liquids so that they do not become thirsty.
- Encourage employees to wear light, loose-fitting breathable clothing.
- Where protective clothing or personal protective equipment is necessary, additional monitoring is required as this can increase the risk of heat stress.
- Monitor workers who may have additional heat stress risk factors.
Overall, it is important to plan and provide training and awareness to farm supervisors and workers. Topics should include heat stress risks, heat illness prevention, and employee and self-monitoring in hot weather conditions.
OSHA provides many materials and educational resources that can be used to increase awareness and for training purposes. The link to OSHA’s heat illness prevention campaign is Water-Rest-Shade: OSHA’s Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness
Finally - workers and supervisors can use OSHA’s free mobile phone heat app to calculate the work site heat index. Receive reminders about protective measures that should be taken to protect workers from heat-related illness - such as drinking enough fluids, scheduling rest breaks, planning for and knowing what to do in an emergency, adjusting work operations, gradually building up the workload for new workers, training on heat illness signs and symptoms, and monitoring each other for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness.
Melissa O'Rourke, extension farm and agribusiness management specialist, email@example.com,