Heat Stress in the Workplace: How to Create a Management Plan

man working with heat

What is Heat Stress?

Heat stress is a condition that occurs when the body's internal temperature rises beyond its normal range due to exposure to high temperatures, humidity, and/or physical exertion. This can lead to a range of heat-related illnesses and injuries, including heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Heat stress is a significant occupational health hazard that can affect workers in various industries, including construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation.

According to OSHA, up to 70 percent of outdoor workplace fatalities is due to occupational heat exposure; from working in hot or warm environments in the first few days.

It is essential to address heat stress in the workplace to protect workers' health and safety and prevent the risk of workplace accidents and injuries. In addition to the human cost of heat stress, it can also have significant economic consequences, including reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and higher workers' compensation costs.

The objective of this article is to provide guidance on how to create a heat stress management plan that prioritizes the health and safety of workers and complies with OSHA guidelines. The article will cover different heat-related illnesses and injuries, prevention strategies, and responsibilities of management, supervisors, and employees. By following these guidelines, employers can create a safer and healthier workplace that benefits everyone.

Standards and Regulatory Guidelines on Heat Stress

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established regulations and guidelines for protecting workers from heat stress in the workplace. These regulations and guidelines, which can be found in the OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) Section III: Chapter 4, aim to prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries by setting standards for acclimatization, hydration, rest breaks, engineering controls, and personal protective equipment.

It is essential for employers to comply with OSHA's regulations and guidelines to ensure that their workers are protected from heat stress. Failure to comply with these regulations and guidelines can result in OSHA citations, fines, and legal action. Additionally, non-compliance can lead to an increased risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries, which can have significant human and economic costs for employers.

In addition to OSHA, there are several other regulatory bodies that provide guidelines and standards for preventing heat stress in the workplace. These include:

  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): NIOSH is a federal agency that provides recommendations for preventing heat stress and other occupational hazards. NIOSH has established Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) for heat stress that employers can use to evaluate and control heat exposure in the workplace.
  • American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH): ACGIH is a professional organization that develops and publishes guidelines for occupational safety and health. ACGIH has established Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for heat stress that can be used as a reference for employers when developing their heat stress management plans.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA regulates heat stress as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The EPA provides guidelines for controlling heat stress emissions in the workplace to protect both workers and the environment.
  • State and local regulatory bodies: Some states and local jurisdictions have their own regulations and guidelines for preventing heat stress in the workplace. Employers should be aware of these regulations and comply with them in addition to the federal regulations and guidelines.

Employers should regularly review and update their heat stress management plans to ensure compliance with all relevant regulations and guidelines.


Creating and implementing a heat stress management plan is a shared responsibility among various roles within an organization. These include:

  • Management: The responsibility of creating a heat stress management plan falls on the management team. This involves conducting a risk assessment of the workplace and identifying potential heat stress hazards, developing policies and procedures to prevent heat stress, providing resources to implement the plan, and ensuring compliance with applicable regulations and guidelines. Management should also prioritize worker safety and health in decision-making related to work schedules, workload, and work environment.
  • Department Heads/Directors: Department heads or directors are responsible for implementing the heat stress management plan in their respective departments. This includes ensuring that employees receive appropriate training on preventing heat stress, providing necessary resources and equipment, monitoring heat stress risks, and encouraging employees to report any heat stress symptoms or concerns.
  • Supervisors: Supervisors play a critical role in ensuring compliance with the heat stress management plan on a day-to-day basis. They should monitor the workplace for heat hazards, enforce policies and procedures related to preventing heat stress, and provide support to employees who may be experiencing symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Supervisors should also communicate regularly with management to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the plan and make recommendations for improvement.
  • Employees: Employees have a responsibility to take measures to prevent heat stress, such as staying hydrated, taking rest breaks in shaded areas, and wearing appropriate clothing. Employees should also report any heat stress symptoms or concerns to their supervisor or manager promptly. By doing so, employees can help identify potential heat hazards and enable their employer to take necessary action to address the situation.

The roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders in heat stress management plan can help ensure that workers are protected from heat stress and employers comply with applicable regulations and guidelines. It is important for organizations to clearly define these roles and responsibilities, and ensure that all stakeholders understand and fulfill their obligations.

worker shoveling

Different Heat Stress Illnesses/Injuries

Heat-related illnesses and injuries are common in workplaces with hot and humid conditions, and can range from mild heat rash to life-threatening heat stroke. Here are some additional details on the different types of illnesses and injuries due to extreme heat:

Heat Rash

Heat rash is a type of skin irritation that occurs when sweat ducts become blocked and sweat is trapped under the skin. Symptoms of heat rash include small red bumps, itching, and discomfort. Heat rash can be prevented by wearing lightweight, breathable clothing and by keeping the skin dry. Treatment for heat rash involves moving to a cooler, less humid environment and keeping the affected area dry and clean.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are muscle spasms that typically occur in the legs, arms, or abdomen during or after physical activity in a hot environment. They are caused by dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance in the body. Symptoms of heat cramps include muscle pain and tightness. Heat cramps can be prevented by staying hydrated and replacing lost electrolytes through drinks or foods that contain sodium and potassium. Treatment for heat cramps involves moving to a cooler environment, resting, and gently stretching and massaging the affected muscles.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a more serious heat stress illness that can occur after prolonged exposure to heat and dehydration. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, headache, and fainting. Heat exhaustion can be prevented by staying hydrated, taking frequent breaks in a cool environment, and wearing lightweight clothing. Treatment for heat exhaustion involves moving to a cooler environment, resting, and rehydrating with fluids and electrolytes.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most severe type of heat stress illness and can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. It occurs when the body's temperature regulation system fails, and body temperature rises rapidly. Symptoms of heat stroke include a high body temperature, confusion, seizures, and loss of consciousness. Heat stroke can be prevented by taking frequent breaks in a cool environment, staying hydrated, and wearing lightweight clothing. Treatment for heat stroke requires immediate medical attention, and involves cooling the body rapidly with ice packs, cool water immersion, or other methods while awaiting emergency medical services.

Heat Syncope

Heat syncope is a type of heat illness that is characterized by fainting or dizziness. It is typically caused by standing for long periods of time in a hot environment or standing up suddenly after sitting or lying down in a hot environment. Symptoms of heat syncope may include fainting, dizziness, lightheadedness, and weakness. To prevent heat syncope, workers should be encouraged to take regular breaks, wear lightweight clothing, and stay hydrated. If a worker experiences heat syncope, they should be moved to a cool, shaded area and given fluids to drink.

Transient Heat Fatigue

Transient heat fatigue is a type of heat stress illness that is similar to heat exhaustion, but milder. It is typically caused by prolonged exposure to heat and humidity, and can occur even in workers who are acclimated to working in hot environments. Symptoms of transient heat fatigue may include tiredness, weakness, dizziness, and headaches. To prevent transient heat fatigue, workers should be encouraged to take regular breaks, wear lightweight clothing, and stay hydrated. If a worker experiences transient heat fatigue, they should be moved to a cool, shaded area and given fluids to drink.

It is important for employers to provide training to workers on the signs and symptoms of all heat illnesses and injuries. This can help workers recognize the signs of heat stress and take appropriate action to prevent more serious heat illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Employers should also have a first aid plan in place that outlines the appropriate steps to take in the event of a heat stress illness or injury.

The symptoms of heat stress can vary depending on the severity of the illness or injury, but some common symptoms include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps or weakness
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Difficulty breathing

It's important to note that these symptoms may not always be immediately apparent, and some individuals may not even realize that they are experiencing heat stress until it's too late.

Heat Stress Prevention and Risk Management

Heat stress prevention and risk management strategies can help prevent heat stress in the workplace. These strategies may include:

Engineering Controls

These controls involve modifying the work environment to reduce and prevent heat stress.

  • Install insulation: Insulation can help keep workspaces cool by reducing the transfer of heat from outside to inside. This can include insulating walls, ceilings, and floors, as well as using insulating materials for pipes and equipment.
  • Provide shade: Outdoor workspaces can be particularly challenging during hot weather. Providing shade through umbrellas, tents, or other structures can help protect workers from direct sunlight and reduce heat exposure.
  • Use cool water: Providing cool water for workers to drink, as well as for cooling off in a misting station or shower, can help reduce heat stress. Encourage workers to drink water frequently to stay hydrated.
  • Limit exposure: Minimizing exposure to heat and direct sunlight can also help reduce heat stress. Consider reducing work hours during peak heat hours or scheduling breaks in cooler areas.
  • Adjust workloads: Heavy workloads can increase heat stress. Consider reducing workloads during hot weather, or providing additional workers to share the workload.

Administrative Controls

Administrative controls involve modifying work practices or policies to manage heat.

  • Use the buddy system: Encouraging workers to work in pairs or teams can help ensure that they are watching out for each other and identifying signs of heat stress. This can also help prevent workers from overexerting themselves by sharing the workload.
  • Provide training: Train workers on the signs and symptoms of heat stress, as well as methods for preventing it. Encourage workers to speak up if they experience symptoms or observe others who are exhibiting symptoms.
  • Modify uniforms: Modify work uniforms to be more breathable and lightweight, which can help manage heat.
  • Implement a heat acclimatization program: Gradually introducing workers to hot work environments can help their bodies adjust to the heat and reduce the risk of heat illnesses.
  • Provide regular breaks: Encourage workers to take frequent breaks in shaded or cool areas. Consider scheduling longer breaks during the hottest times of the day.

Using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

There are several types of PPE that can help minimize heat stress in the workplace. One example is cooling vests, which contain pockets that hold cold packs or have built-in cooling mechanisms. Cooling vests can help regulate body temperature and keep workers cool during hot conditions. Another example is cooling bandanas or neck wraps, which are worn around the neck to cool the blood flow to the brain. Other PPE options include cooling helmets, hats, and arm sleeves. Employers should provide and train workers on how to use these tools appropriately.

Risk Assessment and Management Strategies

Employers should conduct a risk assessment of their worksite to identify potential heat hazards and implement appropriate risk management strategies. This may include:

  • Monitoring weather conditions: Employers should monitor weather conditions to anticipate potential heat hazards. This can involve checking weather forecasts regularly and adjusting work schedules or practices accordingly.
  • Identifying high-risk individuals: Identifying high-risk individuals, such as those who are older, obese, or have pre-existing medical conditions, is also important. Employers should consider assigning them to less strenuous tasks or providing more frequent rest breaks in cooler areas.
  • Conducting heat stress audits: Conducting heat stress audits can also be helpful in identifying potential hazards and implementing appropriate control measures. This can involve reviewing worksite conditions, work practices, and employee health and safety records. The results of the audit can inform the development and implementation of a heat stress management plan tailored to the specific needs of the worksite and employees.

Training and Education for Employees on Heat Stress Prevention

Employers should provide training and education to workers on the signs and symptoms of heat stress, prevention strategies, and appropriate response procedures in case of an emergency.

Here are some heat stress training programs available:

  1. OSHA's Heat Stress Training: OSHA offers a free online training course that covers the basics of heat stress, including risk factors, symptoms, and prevention strategies. The course is designed for workers, employers, and safety professionals.
  2. National Institutes of Health Heat Stress Training: This 4-hour heat stress training covers topics such as Physiology of heat stress illnesses and treatment, work environment evaluation, and work environment controls.
  3. American Red Cross Heat Illness Prevention Training: The American Red Cross offers a training program specifically designed for outdoor workers who are at risk of heat-related illnesses. The program covers the importance of staying hydrated, taking breaks, and recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It also includes information on first aid procedures.

By implementing these prevention and risk management strategies, employers can help protect workers from heat stress and reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries in the workplace.


In conclusion, heat stress is a serious workplace hazard that can result in various illnesses and injuries. It is important for employers to implement comprehensive heat stress management plans that include compliance with relevant standards and guidelines, responsibilities of all levels of management and employees, risk assessment and management strategies, and appropriate training and education programs.

Engineering and administrative controls, as well as personal protective equipment, can also be used to minimize heat stress. By implementing these measures, employers can ensure the safety and health of their workers and maintain a productive work environment. It is important to recognize the risks associated with heat stress and take proactive steps to prevent it in the workplace.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.