Working in the heat may be unavoidable for some of your employees, but in addition to being uncomfortable, it can pose risks. Whether employees brave high temperatures indoors or outdoors, frequently or only once in a while, the combination of environmental conditions, rigorous tasks, inadequate hydration, and clothing requirements can result in heat stress. Three major illnesses related to a worker’s inability to cope with excess heat while working include:
- Heat cramps: This condition is the least serious of heat-related illnesses. Symptoms include muscular pains and spasms, typically in the abdominal muscles, arms, or legs. Heat cramping can occur when an individual sweats profusely and does not replace lost electrolytes. Treatment includes resting in a cool place, lightly stretching affected muscles, and drinking non-alcoholic and caffeine-free beverages to replenish fluids and electrolytes.
- Heat exhaustion: This condition also occurs as a result of exposure to high temperatures and dehydration. Symptoms include moist or pale skin, heavy sweating, headaches, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, and exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke without treatment. Treatment includes drinking fluids, using cooling measures such as ice towels or fans, and removing any unnecessary clothing.
- Heat stroke: This condition, the most serious of heat-related illnesses, can be life-threatening and occurs when the body is no longer able to cool itself off and remove excess heat through sweating. Signs of heat stroke include hot and red skin, a rapid and weak pulse, shallow breathing, and changes in consciousness. An individual suffering from heat stroke needs immediate and professional medical treatment. Report the emergency, move the individual out of the heat, and use fans, a cool bath, or a wet sheet to cool him or her down. Do not provide fluids if the individual is not fully conscious or is vomiting.
Other symptoms that may indicate excessive exposure to high temperatures include fainting, rash, and fatigue.
Controlling Heat Stress
Heat stress can diminish work performance and adversely affect employee health and safety. There are several steps your business can take to help protect workers from heat stress and related illnesses.
System and equipment changes:
- Block or shield heat produced by equipment that contributes to high work temperatures. When possible, use process equipment that is specifically designed to create less heat.
- Provide power tools that decrease manual labor tasks and reduce physical exertion.
- Reduce the amount of heat in the work area by isolating, enclosing, ventilating, or shielding workers from the heat source.
- Cool the work space with evaporative coolers, air conditioners, spot coolers, or fan and mist systems.
General and administrative controls:
- Provide workers with an air-conditioned or temperature-controlled rest area or control station to use throughout the workday. How often or how long an employee stays in a rest area can vary depending on the temperature of the working environment.
- Provide water and encourage workers to drink frequently (one cup of cool water every 20 minutes).
- Help workers acclimate to hotter environments by gradually increasing the time spent on shift.
- Schedule heavy work during the coolest part of the day.
- Prior to starting a job in a high-heat area, consider conducting pre-placement medical screenings of your workers to identify those individuals who may be more at risk.
- Train employees and supervisors to recognize the signs of heat-related disorders, how to provide appropriate first aid, and when to contact emergency personnel. Encourage workers to report any symptoms as soon as possible. Ignoring the signs and delaying treatment will only make the situation worse.
- Educate employees on ways to safeguard against heat stress, such as wearing lightweight/light-colored clothing, drinking and eating regularly, and working in the shade or indoors when possible.
- Provide cooling vests, hydration packs, heat-reflective clothing, or other personal protection equipment for workers, as needed.