Case Study: Heat-related Illness in Occupational Injury Claims

Summertime in Texas is synonymous with triple-digit heat. With those record high temperatures also comes an influx of heat-related claims. Smart business leaders with operations in Texas take steps to prevent heat-related illness with everything from facility modifications to staff education.

Consider this example: An employee was in his first week on the job at his employer’s distribution center. On this particular day, the employee worked three hours and then reported a headache, dizziness and abdominal cramping after taking his lunch break. Managers immediately took the employee to the air-conditioned break area to cool his body temperature by applying cool clothes until he could be evaluated by the on-site nurse. After an evaluation, he was then transported for medical treatment. The initial medical evidence reflected a state of dehydration and heat exhaustion for the employee.

Air conditioning all warehouses is simply not possible for every operation in Texas, so it’s important that supervisors are trained on the signs for heat-related illnesses, which include but are not limited to dizziness, nausea, fatigue and headaches. Supervisors at this particular employer are trained in recognizing the symptoms, and they then monitor employees and take appropriate actions if a heat-related illness is suspected. This particular employer also includes discussions on hydration and symptoms of heat-related illness in pre-shift huddles with employees. If symptoms arise, employees are encouraged to notify their supervisor and take a break in the closest cooling area. 

In the event a heat-related illness does occur, it’s important to consider the following questions when investigating coverage:
• What were the low and high temperatures on the date of the incident?  It may be helpful to research the temperature by hour leading up to the incident.
• What were the humidity levels and heat index levels for the date of incident?
• If the employee was working inside, was the work area air conditioned?
• What was the temperature in the building during the work shift?
• If air conditioned, was the unit(s) in proper working order on the date of incident?
• If the A/C unit(s) were not working properly, how long were they not functioning?
• If the employee was working in an area that does not have air conditioning, what steps were being followed to keep employees hydrated and cool?
• What symptoms did the employee experience? When did they start, and how long was the employee working before the symptoms started?
• Confirm when the employee started working on the date of incident and when the employee clocked out. 
• Did the employee take any breaks before feeling symptoms? If so, confirm the time and length of each break taken on the date of incident, and where the breaks were taken.
• What type of clothing was the employee wearing on the date of the incident?
• When did the employee last eat before experiencing symptoms, and what did the employee eat?
• How long had the employee performed these job activities?  Is the employee a new hire or a recent addition to this particular work area?

Upon investigation, the employee in this recent example confirmed his work location had ice and cool water readily available and that he was allowed to carry a water jug with him while at work. He also confirmed having taken two breaks before becoming ill and that he took his 30-minute lunch break in the air-conditioned breakroom. With this information, along with reports of temperature inside and outside the facility, the case was referred to the client’s medical management partner to obtain the employee’s medical records from his emergency visit and complete an analysis to determine if his symptoms were a direct result of his employment or other factors.  

Businesses with operations in Texas understand that high heat and humidity are part of our environment in every Texas summer. However, employers can take steps to promote the health and safety of employees despite high temperatures. While this employer cannot air condition its entire facility, it mitigates the effects of the heat with large, industrial fans circulating the air at all times; a sizeable, air-conditioned break room and other cooled areas easily accessible to employees; ice machines and water available for employees at all times; electrolyte popsicles provided; and vending machines with sports drinks available for purchase. Efforts to help employees to stay cool are part of the culture: Workers are encouraged to carry water jugs while working and to notify managers if they need a break for access to cool water or lower temperatures.

In this example, the worker who experienced heat-related illness was not conditioned to work in the heat of the warehouse and perform the physical demands of his job. PartnerSource’s recommendation is to provide a work schedule that progressively builds hours in the heat so that the individual can become accustomed to working in a new position in the summer months. This adjustment could allow a worker’s body the opportunity to acclimate to higher temperatures while also learning their new job activities.

For more information on how your company can mitigate the effects of the Texas heat, please contact your team leader.