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Beat the Heat, Inside the Shop and Out!

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Summer heat and the heavy, clinging humidity that goes with it can be rough on anyone. But for workers whose job puts them in the worst of it, hours upon hours every day, all week long, it isn’t merely a matter of discomfort. Occupational heat exposure can be the cause of a wide range of heat-related illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heat is already one of the most significant causes of weather-related death in the US. Every year, more than 1,000 Americans succumb to the effects of unusually hot and humid environments.

Occupations that bring people into daily contact with the kind of suffocating heat most of us can escape, such as construction, vehicle repair, firefighting, factory work, present an even higher risk. Add individual worker factors such as age, weight, preexisting medical conditions and medicines that may produce negative side effects under extreme body temperatures, and you’ve got the potential for something pretty serious.

But here’s the cool thing: virtually 100% of heat-related on-the-job illnesses are preventable, from painful cases of heat rash to the far more dangerous heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But the right measure will take some understanding, planning and the commitment of your entire team.

Heat-related illnesses defined

Heat-related illness, also known as hyperthermia, results from exposure to high air temperatures and the loss of its ability to cool itself. Normally, the body will react to high heat by perspiring. As the sweat evaporates, it takes with it body heat, radiating it into the atmosphere and away from the body.

Problems begin when humidity levels rise with the heat. In those instances, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, which prevents the body from releasing heat quickly enough to stay cool. As a result, body temperatures may rise to dangerous levels.

As was mentioned previously, heat-related illnesses and deaths are preventable. And yet, people still succumb to illness caused by extreme heat each year. In addition to the actual air temperature and a person’s underlying health issues, environmental factors, such as humidity, can contribute to hyperthermia, as can strenuous workplace physical activities in hot conditions. Buildings and other parts of the man-made environment also increase the risks involved in heat waves.

Of the most common heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the most serious.

Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Workers suffering heat exhaustion might have cool and moist skin, but the pulse rate is fast and weak, breathing rapid and shallow.

● Muscle cramping

● Fatigue

● Headache

● Nausea/vomiting

● Dizziness or fainting

Signs of Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion that goes unrecognized may develop into heat stroke, a serious, life-threatening condition. Sustained high body temperatures can permanently damage the brain and vital organs, leading to multiple organ system failure and death.

● Body temperature greater than 103°F

● Hot, dry skin, with no sweating

● Strong but rapid pulse

● Throbbing headache with nausea

● Dizziness

● Confusion

● Unconsciousness

Other occupational heat conditions

Though less serious than both heat exhaustion and heat stroke, heat cramps and heat rash (prickly heat) are painful and can negatively impact workplace productivity.

Heat cramps

Heat cramps are painful contractions of the body’s muscles. Generally caused by a depletion of salt levels due to excessive sweating, symptoms of heat cramps include pain or spasms in the muscles of the abdomen, arm or legs.

Heat rash

Also known as “prickly heat,” heat rash is a skin irritation also caused by excessive sweating. Sufferers of heat rash will notice clusters of inflamed, painful pimples or small blisters on neck, upper chest, groin area, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.

Determining risk of heat illness

As pointed out by OSHA, there is no single cause that results in greater occupational heat danger. Rather, it’s a combination of several conditions that elevate the potential for risk, including:

In every case, however, preventing heat-related illnesses requires determining if a workplace heat hazard is currently present. Two heat sources contribute to the risk of heat-related illness.

1. Environmental heat, the heat produced by warm or hot surroundings.

2. Metabolic heat, the heat generated by an individual’s own body, which is directly linked to the exertion required to do the job.

The OSHA Technical Manual provides heat-stress values for a range of occupational categories. With that information, you can compare total heat stress to published occupational heat guidance, helping you determine “how hot is too hot” as it relates to current workload.

Remember, depending on your specific situation, your workers may experience heat stress at temperatures much lower than public heat advisories.

Who’s at risk?

While it’s true that anyone can fall victim to heat-related illnesses at work, there are certain people whose current physical conditions and lifestyle expose them to even greater risk. It will be worthwhile to pay special attention to anyone falling under any of the following categories:

● Workers older than 65

● Overweight workers

● Employees with existing health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease

● Those taking medications that may impact their bodies’ ability to regulate heat

Extreme heat can even lead to other conditions that may contribute to workplace injuries, such as sweaty hands, fogged safety glasses and dizziness, which can lead to slips, trips and falls.

Planning is the Key

Stopping heat illnesses before they can happen is where we believe it all starts. Protecting the employees you count on not only makes sense not only from the standpoint of productivity, it’s also the right thing to do.

Because this really is a team effort, it’s vital training into all aspects of the danger of heat takes place, not only at the management level, but with the line workers as well. Everyone should understand what heat stress is, how it affects health and safety and ways to prevent it.

So what steps can you take? We’ve listed several below.

Encourage Hydration

Without a doubt, staying fully hydrated throughout the workday is one of the best ways workers can avoid heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses. The question is how much hydration is adequate?

As a rule of thumb, experts recommend drinking approximately 16 ounces of water before starting a shift, and then continuing to drink between 5 and 7 additional ounces every 15 to 20 minutes thereafter. Because sweating also causes loss of electrolytes while keeping the body cool, workers may want to alternate water with fluids designed specifically to replace those missing electrolytes, such as sports drinks and electrolyte-infused waters.

Avoid drinks that contain high amounts of sugar, sugar alcohols and artificial ingredients. Also stay away from coffee, caffeinated soft drinks, tea and alcohol, as they tend to contribute to dehydration more than they do to relieve it.

Allow for Acclimation

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), anywhere from 50% to 70% of heat-generated fatalities occur in the first few days of working in hot environments, before workers have had a chance to get used to exerting themselves to working in warmer weather.

To prepare for working in the heat and humidity of summer, the human body needs time to acclimatize, building a tolerance to the warmer conditions over time. It’s this lack of acclimatization time that presents the higher risk for fatal outcomes.

When the temperatures begin to rise to potentially dangerous levels, ask yourself, is it possible to modify your company’s work patterns, moving some of the more physically intensive jobs to times when it’s cooler? If so, consider making some temporary shifts in scheduling to add an extra element of protection for your workers.

In many instances, moving the heaviest workloads away from the hottest parts of the workday, or reducing the length of shifts altogether, have helped keep workers healthy and productive. In some instances, supervisors have even been given the option of allowing workers to slow their pace at times of peak heat. Offer extra rest break periods as well. It’s only for a short period and they’ll really help.

Circulate Air

While there are no specific laws or guidelines that govern set maximum temperatures in workplaces, the law does require they be well ventilated and not subject to extreme temperatures. Working to keep cooler air circulating indoors can make huge contributions to your worker heat protection goals, under even unusually warm conditions.

Use fans to improve air flow in hot enclosed areas that aren’t privy to air conditioned air. Keeping air moving around not only helps to reduce ambient air temperatures, but can also increase opportunities for evaporative cooling, optimizing the body’s ability to use the sweat it produces to cool itself.

Provide Shade

In settings where work takes place outdoors, placing physical barriers between workers and the sun’s blistering heat can play a big role in protecting people from overheating. Consider adding tarps, awnings, canopies or some other solar solution to the jobsite, providing an important measure of shade and cooling relief.

In addition, make certain workers are wearing clothing and gear that is as light and breathable as possible for the job, while still offering the required level of protection.


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