During the hot summer months, organizations must be aware of the increased risk of heat related illness. Employers must develop practices that combat this risk as well as procedures for assisting employees who are showing signs of heat illness. The following will provide a brief overview of the risk factors, preventative strategies, symptoms, and first aid knowledge necessary for protecting employees from the heat.
Clearly, hotter temperature is a risk factor for heat related illness, but humidity also plays a large role. This is because humidity prevents sweat from evaporating off our bodies and cooling us down. The Heat Index combines temperature with humidity into a single measurement that can be used to estimate the risk for heat related illness. Individuals who work outdoor or in non-climate-controlled settings should be aware of the daily heat index so that they can better protect themselves.
In addition to climate, physical labor contributes to the risk of heat related illness. As our bodies work, they generate heat. If our bodies are unable to shed the excess heat, we become sick. This is why it is so important to take rests.
Interestingly, those who are new to working in hot and humid climates are at a far greater risk for heat related illness. According to a Cal/OSHA investigation of 25 cases of heat related illness in 2005, 80% of the cases affected individuals who had been on the job for four days or less! It is recommended that new employees gradually increase their workload to become acclimated to the environment.
Clothing and personal protective equipment can alter the risk of heat related illness. Even if the temperature is not extreme, wearing non breathable fabrics can hinder our body’s ability to regulate heat. Although this equipment is necessary while working, employees should be encouraged to take breaks where they can remove equipment. Note: Due to COVID-19, many organizations and communities have implemented mandatory mask rules. As with all PPE, wearing a mask may make it more difficult to regulate body temperature. OSHA recommends providing outdoor rest breaks at a safe physical distance so that employees may remove their mask without posing risk to others.
It is important for organizations to develop their own plans for preventing and addressing cases of heat related illness. Part of this plan must include training for all employees so that they can best protect themselves and others. As discussed above, the Heat Index should be consulted daily to determine the risk level. The following strategies should also be used to prevent heat related illness:
- Provide a shaded area for frequent rest breaks.
- Provide an abundance of water and encourage employees to stay hydrated.
- Gradually increase the workload and duration of heat exposure for new employees.
- Schedule work that requires strenuous physical labor during cooler parts of the day.
- Encourage the use of sunscreen, lightweight clothing, and PPE with cooling technology.
Warning Signs and First Aid
Cramps: Heat cramps involve painful muscle spasms or jerks. They may occur during or after working in the heat. Individuals experiencing heat cramps should drink a sports drink to balance out electrolytes and get plenty of rest. They should also watch out for symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion occurs when the body fails to regulate its temperature and can lead to heat stroke. Signs of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, increased heart rate, dizziness, goose bumps, nausea, low blood pressure, headache, and cramps. An individual experiencing heat exhaustion must immediately stop physical activity, cool off, and drink cool water or a sports drink. They should be monitored for signs of heat stroke.
Heat Stroke: Heat Stroke is an emergency situation that can result in death. Signs of heat stroke include a core body temperature of 104 F or higher, confusion, agitation, loss of consciousness, nausea, vomiting, alteration in sweating, flushed skin, headache, and fast heart rate. If an individual is showing signs of heat stroke, 911 should be called immediately, and bystanders must begin to cool the individual. Excess clothing should be removed, the individual should be placed in cool water or sprayed with cool water and wet towels and ice packs should also be placed on the individual.
Although it may seem inefficient to implement preventative strategies such as frequent rest and water breaks, doing so is best practice for your organization and employees. Individuals who work in the heat should be properly trained on how to prevent, identify, and reduce the symptoms of heat related illness. It is the responsibility of the organization to provide the safest possible working environment and to train employees to prepare for risks that are uncontrollable.