Preventing Heat Exhaustion at Work
The calendar may record the first day of summer as June 21, but Mother Nature has a mind of her own. In the Midwest, we have already broken heat records. While that may be nice if you’re spending the day hanging out at the lake, it can be dangerous for those who work in hot temperatures.
Workers exposed to hot and humid conditions are at risk of heat-related illness, especially those doing heavy work tasks or using bulky or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment. Some workers might be at higher risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions, or if they have certain health conditions.
Heat exhaustion occurs when a person cannot sweat enough to cool the body.
It generally develops when a person is physically active outdoors in extreme heat.
- Dizziness, weakness, nausea, headache, and vomiting
- Blurry vision
- Sweaty skin
- Feeling hot and thirsty
- Difficulty speaking
A worker suffering from heat exhaustion should move to a cool place and drink plenty of water.
If symptoms worsen or don’t improve within 60 minutes, take the person to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation.
Heat stroke is the result of untreated heat exhaustion. Symptoms include:
- Excessive sweating or red, hot, dry skin
- Very high body temperatures
Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency that must be treated quickly by a trained professional. Until help arrives, place the worker in a cool, shady area. Cool the workers with cold water or ice, if available. Provide fluids (preferably water) until help arrives.
Preventing Heat-related Problems
Most heat-related problems can be prevented, or the risk reduced. The best way to prevent heat-related illness is to reduce workers’ exposure to heat using a variety of engineering controls. Options include air conditioning, fans, ventilation, work/rest cycles, drinking water often, and providing shade.
Put together an Occupational Heat Exposure program for working in hot temperatures that identifies any jobs with exposure to radiant heat sources, high humidity, direct physical contact with hot surfaces/objects, or strenuous physical activities. OSHA offers the following work practices:
Have an emergency plan in place that specifies what to do if a worker has signs of heat-related illness, and ensures that medical services are available if needed.
Help workers become acclimatized (gradually build up exposure to heat), especially workers who are new to working in the heat or have been away from work for a week or more. Gradually increase workloads and allow more frequent breaks during the first week of work.
Workers must have adequate potable (safe for drinking) water close to the work area, and should drink small amounts frequently.
Distribute the workload evenly over the day and incorporate work/rest cycles.
If possible, reduce physical demands during hot weather, or schedule heavier work for cooler times of the day.
Rotating job functions among workers can help minimize overexertion and heat exposure
Zywave, Live Well, Work Well, “Surviving The Summer Heat”
J.J. Keller, RegSense, “Occupational Heat Exposure