There are a wide variety of work environments that pose the risk of heat related illness. OSHA’s Occupational Heat Exposure article explains the cause and prevention of these possibly life threatening, yet preventable problems. Although it is obvious that outdoor labor in the hot summer can cause heat related illness, indoor environments, from foundries to commercial kitchens, are also a threat. It is especially important to consider the risks of working in hot environments when the temperature is over 91°F. When temperatures are around that of the human body, it must use energy to keep a stable temperature. Blood flow is increased near the skin, and water and salts are excreted as sweat. In humid environments, sweat cannot evaporate from the skin, therefore it does not do it’s job of cooling the body. Excess heat and sweating can cause problems including heat rash, cramps, exhaustion, and even heat stroke. It is also important to keep in mind that exposure to extreme heat to the point of fatigue can decrease concentration. This can be extremely dangerous when working in hazardous environments.
There are a number of ways that heat related illness can be prevented. When possible, clothing should be breathable and light, but other measures can be taken for those who require heavy protective gear. Implementing work/rest cycles that allow workers to take a break and drink a lot of water is a smart idea. If possible, climate controls such as air conditioning and ventilation should also be used. Keep in mind that new workers or those who are coming back from a long time off need to build up tolerance to the heat. Tolerance can safely be increased by gradually increasing the work load of new employees. Finally, education about the potential risks of certain work environments and procedures for emergency situations should be mandatory for all workers.
Recognizing the symptoms of heat related illness and taking action when they arise is important. Heat rash is skin irritation from sweat. Keeping the affected area dry can reduce symptoms. Heat cramps are caused by the loss of water and salts to the muscles, resulting in pain. Allow workers to stop to drink water and rest in a cool environment. Heat exhaustion is also caused by loss of salts and water. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, and thirst. Workers who experience heat exhaustion need to stop working for the day. They should rest in a cool environment and drink plenty of water. Medical attention may be necessary. Finally, heat stroke is caused by the body being unable to cool down its internal temperature. When heat stroke occurs, the worker stops sweating and can pass out or have seizures. In this case, 911 should be called immediately. While waiting for emergency care, place ice packs on the underarms and pour cold water over the worker. Knowing the signs of heat related illness and taking proper care measures can save lives.
Remember, all workers deserve to work in an environment that does not pose an extreme threat to safety. Workers should also be trained on proper signs and preventions of illness or injury. It is also important that all members of the workplace have the ability to report their concerns. Using a compliance hotline such as Red Flag Reporting empowers your employees to protect your organization and its people.