Preventing heat-related illness in law enforcement
How can an agency best protect employees from the risks associated with heat illness and death?
- Record temperatures across the U.S. have led to an increase in heat-related illnesses and deaths, with an average of 702 deaths annually between 2004 and 2018.
- The three major forms of heat-related illnesses, in order of severity, are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. These conditions occur when individuals are exposed to prolonged heat and humidity without adequate relief or fluid intake.
- Millions of U.S. workers, including first responders such as firefighters and law enforcement officers, are exposed to high-heat environments every year. These workers must be provided with policy guidance on dealing with extreme temperatures and heat illness prevention plans.
- Public safety agencies are advised to conduct assessments to understand the risk of heat illness faced by their workers. They should also develop heat illness prevention programs that include hazard recognition, preventive measures, emergency medical services, and annual training requirements.
- Aside from treating heat-related illnesses, officers also have the opportunity to educate the public about preventive measures for heat exposure.
Many parts of the country are experiencing record temperatures which have caused heat-related illness and death. Between 2004 and 2018, an average of 702 heat-related deaths have occurred in the United States, according to Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistics, with nearly 68,000 individuals being sent to the emergency room for the treatment of heat-related illnesses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 36 work-related deaths due to environmental exposure in 2021. This alarming trend is only expected to worsen in the coming years.
Across the nation this summer, heat alerts have become the norm. As such, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says employers have a responsibility to provide information and plan ahead to protect workers from heat illness and stroke. Many states (such as California and Arizona) have recently issued High Heat Hazard Alerts to warn employers and employees about the dangers of record-high temperatures.
Also, many states (including California, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) have passed regulations for heat illness prevention in outdoor places of employment. As an example, California’s list of industries subject to these heat-related regulations includes agriculture, construction, landscaping, oil and gas extraction, and so on. However, the statute is not limited to those industries and could be applicable to any industry or profession – including the fire service, law enforcement, adult and juvenile corrections or detention, as well as probation and parole – where workers are exposed to outdoor temperatures that exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
What is a heat-related illness?
Lexipol recently posted an article on keeping firefighters safe during the warm-weather months. In this article, we point out the three major forms of illness related to heat exposure. In order of severity, they are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. According to experts, these conditions happen when workers are subject to “exposure to abnormal or prolonged amounts of heat and humidity without relief or adequate fluid intake.” Here are the symptoms of these illnesses:
- Painful cramping, particularly in the legs
- Moist, flushed skin
- Painful cramping
- Moist, pale skin
- Body temperature over 100.4 degrees F
- Nausea, possible vomiting and diarrhea
- Headache and/or fatigue
- Feeling generally weak, anxious, or faint
- Dry, warm skin
- Abnormally high heart rate
- Body temperature over 104 degrees F
- Nausea, possible vomiting and diarrhea
- Headache and/or fatigue
- Decreased appetite
- Feeling confused or agitated
- Feeling of lethargy or stupor
- Possible seizures, coma, and death
First responders at risk
According to OSHA, millions of U.S. workers are subjected to high-heat environments (both indoor and outdoor) every year. When asked to identify professions where high heat is a major environmental issue, many think of roofers, road workers and postal carriers. However, first responders do much of their primary work outdoors and definitely feel the direct impact of high-heat conditions. Because of this, public safety agencies must provide policy guidance for how to deal with extreme temperatures.
In light of their constant exposure to hot and extreme outdoor temperatures – as well as the heat from active fires – most fire agencies have heat illness prevention plans, programs, or policies. Lexipol, a leader in content development for public safety agencies, also has a Heat and Illness Prevention Program Policy for fire agencies. Following this policy can be the difference between life and death for firefighters working in severe heat.
In the field of law enforcement – which includes adult and juvenile corrections or detention, probation and parole – at-risk situations may include:
- Firearms training and qualifications at an outdoor firearms range
- Special weapons and tactics training in an outdoor environment
- Supervising incarcerated persons or youth on outdoor work crews or during outdoor recreation or activities
- Outdoor physical activity as part of a training academy
- Serving on patrol or during calls for service in outdoor environments
- Probation or parole compliance checks while outside
- Law enforcement search and rescue and marine patrol
- Marijuana grower eradication activities
This list could be expanded to include any other activities where officers could be exposed to outdoor temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time.
Heat illness prevention assessment
To help prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths, public safety agencies should conduct an assessment and seek direction from risk management personnel, legal advisors and/or local OSHA offices for guidance in determining the risk of heat illness and death faced by their workers.
Whether mandated by statute or policy, such assessments are considered a best practice for protecting employees. Questions agencies may want to consider include:
- How can the agency best protect employees from the risks associated with heat illness and death?
- Will the development of a heat illness prevention program increase or decrease liability for the agency?
Law enforcement officers are already trained in general first aid and part of that training should include recognizing and treating heat illness in humans. Officers working in the community should also be aware of the effects extreme heat can cause on animals, including K-9s, and be prepared to respond to those events and care for those animals when necessary. For example, in a recent search and rescue operation involving a hiker in Los Angeles County, extreme heat resulted in a sheriff’s department K-9 being airlifted due to overheating.
Developing a heat illness and prevention program
If your agency decides to address heat illness for employees who work outdoors, the organization should first develop a heat illness and prevention program or plan. Some of the elements of this program or plan may include:
- A purpose and scope section
- Leadership and individual responsibilities
- Guidance on hazard recognition
- Preventive measures (e.g., climate monitoring, observation, limiting exposure to heat illness to workers, acclimatization, hydration, shade, etc.)
- Emergency medical services
- Annual training requirements
- A Heat Index Chart to determine when remediation kicks in
You can consult the California Sample Procedures for Heat Illness Prevention and the U.S. Department of Labor Heat Illness Prevention site for sample policies and guidance. Some states, such as California, also provide guidance to employers who have questions or need assistance with workplace safety programs. If your agency is in California, you can set up a consultation with Cal/OHSA Consultation Services Branch for further information.
Officer response to the public for heat illness
Officers not only have a duty to treat individuals under supervision for heat illness and exposure, but they also may have an opportunity to educate the public via public service announcements or other materials to advise at-risk individuals of preventive measures for heat exposure.
Some of this outreach may include general tips to care for heat-related illness, plus heat wave tips for animals in vehicles and at home. Public announcements or educational materials may be developed in conjunction with other first responders, OSHA, the American Red Cross, the Department of Animal Services, the Department of Aging, state and local health departments, health care providers, and other stakeholders as part of a collaborative community effort.
Gordon Graham, international risk management expert and co-founder of Lexipol, frequently states that “If it is predictable, it is preventable.” It’s clear we will experience continuing heat waves that have the potential to cause heat-related illness and death. We also know there are many preventable measures and steps that law enforcement, adult and juvenile corrections or detention, and probation and parole agencies can do to prevent and protect employees during the hot summer months.
Having policies in place, conducting an assessment of risk and developing a comprehensive and robust heat illness prevention program are all recommended, regardless of any programs being mandated by state statute, for employees who are at risk. Finally, responding to and educating employees and the public at large regarding the hazards associated with heat exposure can go a long way toward keeping everyone in your community safe.
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