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The cost of heat-related illnesses

How significant are the differences in cost between preventing and treating heat-related illnesses?


Responding is Nick Hernandez, global account manager, and Kyle Hubregtse, CEO, Kenzen, Kansas City, MO.

OSHA’s Safety Pays Individual Injury Estimator indicates that a single incidence of overheating related to extreme weather conditions can cost an employer around $79,081. This includes both direct (including workers’ compensation, medical treatment and hospitalization) and indirect (including missed workdays and decrease in productivity) costs. Less severe – but still dangerous – types of heat-related illnesses are heat rash, heat cramps and heat syncope. Rhabdomyolysis, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are more life-threatening, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is only part of the story though; these estimates don’t account for chronic diseases associated with long-term heat exposure. 

As global temperatures continue to rise as a result of climate change, so too does the number workers at risk of heat-related illnesses. Despite these illnesses and fatalities being preventable, millions are affected each year. The Atlantic Council reports that extreme heat is associated with 8,500 excess deaths annually and estimates a nearly sevenfold increase to 59,000 by 2050. This can lead to global instability and cost the global economy $2.4 trillion every year by 2030, the International Labour Organization says.

This raises the question: What are we doing about it?

To “improve workplace safety to prevent traumatic injuries” is just one of many strategic goals that NIOSH and other global organizations aim to achieve. However, without a gold standard, employers are largely left to create their own protocols. For example, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health standards require the provision of hydration, shade, training and emergency contingency plans. Other states or countries don’t share the same level of specificity.

Experience has shown us that one size doesn’t fit all. Further, reliance on hydration as a sole strategy can be problematic. A study published in November 2021 in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that although rehydration therapy is important in managing heat-related illnesses, it may not be a sufficient intervention for severe cases without the concurrent use of other active cooling methods. Examples of treatment methods are cold-water immersion, body-cooling accessories such as ice vests and artificial airflow units. Devices that monitor wet bulb globe temperature – a metric of heat stress – are readily available on the market as well.

Technological advancements have made it possible for organizations to further improve preexisting protocols. In accordance with OSHA’s nationwide initiative on heat hazard protection, device and software interoperability can greatly reduce the incidence of heat-related illnesses. Therefore, wearable technology that reliably and accurately monitors physiology and alerts individuals as they get too hot is the leading cost-effective solution in enabling proactive decision-making within the occupational health space.

Wearable technology that helps an individual understand their body and compounded response to heat can range from $150 to $1,000 yearly, depending on the accuracy, applicability and scale. Employers sometimes provide water according to hydration recommendations, electrolytes, shade structures and cooling facilities. These costs can be hundreds or thousands of dollars per worker per year, but pale in comparison to even one instance of heat exhaustion.

Given the high costs of heat-related illness and the low costs of prevention, employers will maintain a safer, more productive worksite, and gain a large return on investment by prevention.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be considered a National Safety Council endorsement.

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