As spring gives way to summer, the temperatures are warming up – and weather that may cause workers to suffer from heat illnesses is more likely to occur.
For those that work outdoors, it’s important to be informed about how heat can take a physical toll on a body and to be prepared to prevent complications. At times, employees may be required to work in hot temperatures or hot environments for long periods of time. When a person is not able to maintain a normal body temperature because of a hot external temperature, heat illnesses can occur. While some environments with hot temperatures are inside a facility, most heat-related illnesses occur during the summer months by workers working outside.
What To Know About Heat Illnesses
Some factors that may contribute to heat illnesses:
- High temperature and humidity
- Low fluid consumption
- Direct sun exposure or extreme heat, with little or no shade
- Limited breeze, wind or air movement
- Physical exertion
- Wearing bulky clothing or equipment
There are a variety of illnesses that can be directly related to heat.
Heat Stroke. The most serious of heat-related illnesses, a heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulating systems is completely kaput. The external temperature outside the body is overwhelming a body’s ability to keep a normal temperature on the inside. A normal human temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Working in heat will cause a person’s temperature to rise and when it reaches 104 degrees or higher, this is a critical situation. Checking a body temperature for signs of rising BEFORE this point is important. Look for the following signs of heath stroke if working in extreme heat: Confusion, loss of consciousness, lack of sweat and seizures.
If a worker exhibits any of these symptoms or a rising body temperature, get medical help immediately. While waiting for medical help, get the person to a cooler location or into shade. Remove as much clothing as possible. Wet the worker with cool water and try to fan or circulate air to speed cooling. Place cold wet cloths or towels on the worker’s body or soak the worker’s clothing with cold water.
Heat Exhaustion. Also a serious heat illness, heat exhaustion will exhibit with symptoms of headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, extreme thirst, heavy sweating and an increased body temperature of about 100.5 degrees. If a worker is experiencing heat exhaustion, they should be removed from the hot area, either to a cooler area or into shade. Have the worker wash his head, face and neck in cold water or apply cold compresses to head, face and neck. Encourage quick and frequent sips of cold water. After the worker has been cooled off, they should be taken for a medical evaluation before returning to the hot environment and work.
Heat Cramps. Muscle pains while working in hot environments could be heat cramps. These cramps occur because the body has lost too much body salt and fluid due to sweating. Workers sweating should try to replenish fluids every 15 or 20 minutes with a combination of water and carbohydrate/electrolyte sport drink. Usually when you re-hydrate, the cramps will abate.
Heat Rash. Developing a heat rash is the most common complaint among people that work in high heat environments. This rash is caused by sweating and is characterized by a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. They usually appear on the neck, upper chest, groin area, under breasts and in elbow creases. Once a rash appears, try to keep powder on area to help keep it dry. The best treatment is getting out of the hot and humid conditions and letting the area dry out. Do no use creams or ointments on a heat rash.
How To Prevent Heat Illnesses
- Have a person designated to oversee heat illnesses when they occur and be on the lookout for employees showing signs and symptoms of heat illness. This person needs to have the power to pull a person out of the work environment to address a heat illness and offer treatment until it is safe for the worker to return to work.
- Properly inform and educate workers about heat hazards in a workplace. Information presented should include temperature, humidity, sun and other thermal exposures, work demands, PPE and personal risk factors. Teach awareness of the National Weather Service Heat Index which offers an accurate reading of the temperature, taking into account all weather variances – it can sometimes be 15 degrees higher than the actual temperature.
- Use repetitive messaging of WATER, REST, SHADE. Offer water stations and encourage workers to drink a liter of water throughout each hour in hot temperatures. Have an area of shade or an air-conditioned room available for resting and cooling down. We recommend adhesive safety signs to be put up in locker rooms, in sign-in stations, in buses moving employees to various fields, parking lots or any other spot that will offer a prominent location. It is important that employees are reminded of these safety messages multiple times.
- Use acclimatization protocols to gradually introduce workers to extreme heat and humidity. Experts say employees new to the heat environment should take 14 days to work up to a full day in the hazardous conditions. During a heat wave or days with extreme heat index readings, even experienced workers should slowly and carefully work their way up to spending a full day in the extreme environment.
- Offer a modified work schedule, avoiding work hours in the hottest part of the day. This could include rescheduling non-essential outdoor work to days with a lower heat index; schedule more demanding work in cooler parts of the workday; rotate workers or offer split shifts; be ready to call off the work if the risk of heat illness is too high.
- Provide good training to employees so they recognize the hazards in their work leading to heat illnesses and the symptoms of a heat illness occurring. Let them know what to do if the recognize the signs of a heat illness in themselves or in someone else.
- Prepare a heat illness emergency policy and discuss is with managers and employees so everyone knows what their job is if such an emergency occurs. Let employees know how to contact 911 and what to do for the employee in trouble while waiting for emergency treatment. Planning ahead and having a designated person to address heat hazards is best way to address worksite heat issues.
Heat illnesses can be prevented. Put safety first. There are some specific OSHA regulations related to heat illnesses and you can see them here. Check out more general information from OSHA about heat illnesses and how employers can prevent them here.
Here’s a great video distributed by California OSHA division about preventing heat illnesses.