Extreme heat study aims to protect workers as ASU feels the heat

A study co-authored by an ASU assistant professor provides heat safety recommendations for employers to protect workers from extreme heat

As record-high temperatures sweep across Arizona, a new study co-authored by an ASU assistant professor provides heat safety recommendations to help keep workers, including those at the University, safe from heat-related illnesses.

Jennifer Vanos, an assistant professor who specializes in extreme heat and air pollution research, helped produce a study on heat safety that provides 40 heat safety recommendations intended for employers to help keep their workers safe.

The study includes recommendations such as installing temperature monitoring systems to detect if workers are suffering from heat-related illness and proposing employers provide ice water and cold towels to help workers cool off. These recommendations are "a first step" and "a consensus to push policy" from researchers, Vanos said.

People are at risk of heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke or heat exhaustion, when the body cannot cool itself. These illnesses are preventable when proper precautions are taken, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

At ASU, extreme heat situations can impact normal operations. University Housing has canceled guided tours of on-campus dorms because of high temperatures.

"If it goes over 110 (degrees Fahrenheit) we usually decide not to, and people really don't come out anyways," said Gianna Deluca, an ASU University Housing employee and a sophomore studying elementary education.

Collin Kelly, an ASU graduate who studied digital marketing and graphic design, hits the streets near the Downtown Phoenix campus to canvas for Invest in AZ daily, he said. 

"There have been times where it's been pushing 110 (degrees) even in the shade. And by the end of the day you're just exhausted," Kelly said.

Other jobs at the University require employees to work in the heat no matter the circumstance. In the Sun Devil Fitness Complex’s lifeguard job description, job applicants are asked to "walk throughout campus to make deliveries, regardless of the weather."

University staff who are working in the sun can cool off inside ASU facilities, but including extra breaks and monitoring employees who might have health complications are necessary for keeping everyone safe, Vanos said. 

Exposure to extreme heat and the illnesses it can cause affect a worker's productivity and health. A study published in the Lancet that overlooked global data found that 30% of workers under heat stress reported productivity losses during or at the end of a work shift. 

Employees in agriculture or construction are just some of the types of workers who work in extreme heat, especially in Arizona. The study is unique because "it's the first time that someone has created a consensus document around all the different safety topics we covered," for an issue that affects people across the U.S. workforce, Vanos said.

Some employers already offer annual heat training to employees, which acts as a safety net for all workers involved. If every employee knows what the signs are of heat-related illness, they can help keep their co-workers safe, said Erinanne Saffell, Arizona State Climatologist and a senior lecturer with the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

"When you start moving into heat-related illness, you may not sense that you're succumbing to that heat-related illness. You can become disoriented, and you may not realize that you are at risk," Saffell said.

There are compelling reasons to stay alert about your heat exposure. In Maricopa County, there were 323 heat-associated deaths last year, a 62% increase from 2019, according to Maricopa County Public Health.

The study recommends that employers provide heat acclimatization programs, a process where workers adjust to hot temperatures by gradually being exposed to heat over a five to seven-day period. However, part of staying safe in extreme heat is knowing your own limitations, and no one should think that just living in a hot environment means they are well adjusted, Saffell said.

People may think living in Arizona will prepare them, but "just living in the heat is not going to acclimatize you to it," Saffell said.


Reach the reporter at kryback1@asu.edu and follow @KadenRyback on Twitter. 

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