By: Tim Foulks
The summer months are the portion of the year that nearly everyone looks forward to most. The weather is warmer, the snow is long since melted, and we can enjoy outdoor activities that many of us long for during the chilly fall and winter months. However, with the increased temperature comes an increased risk for humans performing outdoor work. During calendar year 2012, OSHA reported that there were 31 heat-related worker deaths, and 4,120 instances of heat-related illnesses. Nearly twelve heat-related illnesses each day. Heat-related illnesses include a variety of conditions that arise from exposure to high-temperatures, direct sunlight, humidity, and lack of hydration. These conditions include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. Each of these conditions is caused by exposure to heat and carries with it a variety of symptoms to be alert for.
Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat-related illness. Heat stroke occurs when the body loses the ability to properly maintain a normal core body temperature. During heat stroke, the body’s temperature can rise to levels as high as 106° F and may result in fatality or permanent disability without proper medical treatment. Symptoms of heat stroke include hot, dry skin, or, profuse sweating, hallucinations, chills, headaches or migraines, confusion, and slurred speech. A worker experiencing heat stroke may have greatly impaired judgement and display erratic behavior. Heat exhaustion has many of the same symptoms and is the body’s response to large losses of water and salt from heavy amounts of sweating. Both conditions require removing the exposure to heat and providing fluids (water and fluids with electrolytes) to cool the body’s core temperature. If a worker is suspected of having heat stroke or heat exhaustion, 911 should be called immediately to provide proper medical care.
Heat cramps have the same cause as heat exhaustion (loss of fluids and salt from sweat production) and often results in painful cramps, particularly for the major muscles that are involved in the work. Although this condition is less severe than heat stroke and heat exhaustion, it is uncomfortable and still requires the employee to be removed from the hot environment and begin rehydrating with fluids. A worker experiencing heat cramps should not return to work for a few hours after the cramps subside. Heat rash, similar to heat cramps, is a less severe form of heat related illness. Heat rash comes from sweat that does not evaporate from the skin, resulting in red bumps on the skin. Heat rash is the most common form of heat related illness and can be alleviated by working in cooler, less humid environments and wearing appropriately fitting clothes. Although some forms of heat-related illness are more severe than others, all conditions resulting from exposure to heat need to be closely monitored and cared for. Fortunately, we can take proactive steps to help reduce the incidence of heat-related illnesses.
Preventative measures to reduce and control the frequency of heat-related illness should be discussed and reviewed with your team at the beginning of the warm season. Preventative measures include:
1) Selecting appropriate clothing that will wick away sweat and keep the body cool. Light colored, loose-fitting, cotton (or other breathable material) should be worn, while non-breathable synthetic clothing should be avoided. The right clothes will allow sweat to evaporate from the skin resulting in a cooling effect for the skins surface.
2) Begin hydration before outdoor work and repeat often. Drink enough water so that thirst is not experienced. Drinking about 1-cup of water every 15-20 minutes will help prevent dehydration. Additionally, drinks that contribute to dehydration should be avoided (alcohol, fluids with large amounts of caffeine and/or sugar).
3) Gradually increase the duration and intensity of outdoor work to properly allow the body to acclimate to high temperatures. Complete heat acclimatization can require up to 14 days of exposure, and can vary from person to person. Slowly integrate workers into the warmer environments and introduce breaks often at first while the body is adjusting to the warmer climate.
4) Pay attention to weather reports and schedule work around cooler parts of the day. Attempt to limit work activities during the hottest part of the day, particularly during humid days that may increase sweating and decrease time to dehydration. If work must be performed during the warmest part of the day, try to provide shade and offer frequent hydration and rest breaks.
5) Stick to the Buddy System. It’s essential to monitor your own physical condition as well as that of your coworkers. Having a designated person check in with workers to monitor signs and symptoms of heat related illness and provide cool water will help to reduce the frequency and severity of heat related illness. The designated person should be responsible for and allowed to have workers take breaks when heat related illness is a potential concern.
Heat related illnesses are dangerous and can have catastrophic effects. These types of conditions can emerge without warning during prolonged exposure to environmental heat and can even result in loss of consciousness. Monitor co-workers and encourage anyone with signs and symptoms of heat related illness to take a break, rehydrate, and return to work slowly. Heat related illnesses can often be prevented but many mitigation strategies depend on human behavior. Teach your workforce the important factors that will help prevent heat-related illness and reward behaviors that adhere to preventative strategies. Make this summer safe and don’t get burned by the heat.