As summer temperatures rise, so does the health and safety threat from heat in the workplace.
Some 4,000 Americans die each year from heatstroke, and thousands of others suffer from heat-related illnesses. Many of these incidents occur as employees work on jobs that flourish in warm weather, such as construction, roofing, landscaping, or other maintenance chores. Safety professionals and those who might be affected by heat issues need to understand the danger and react to it.
Heat illnesses come in three varieties:
- Heat cramps. Doing hard work in a hot environment throws the body’s natural balance off kilter, as excessive sweating dehydrates the body, and precious electrolytes evaporate with it, causing muscles to seize up, like a car engine starved of oil.
- Heat exhaustion (heat prostration or heat collapse) has similar causes to heat cramps, but different symptoms — dizziness, weakness, nausea, and clammy skin, with body temperature remaining normal.
- Heatstroke. Overwhelming heat overload disrupts the body’s temperature controls, with a fever of 105o or higher often causing fatalities. “This is the one that kills kids locked in cars on sunny days … and old people in poorly ventilated apartments during heat waves,” says author James M. MacDonald. “But it also kills healthy 30-year-old guys working in a humid warehouse.”
To curb the threat of temperature-related illnesses, we’d recommend having your workers take these precautions:
- Pre-hydrate. Before activity starts, have workers drink up to 16 ounces of fluid. Then drink eight ounces every 20 minutes during the activity.
- Drink flavored water. Because plain water quenches thirst too quickly, workers tend to not drink enough of it.
- Acclimate to the heat slowly, over five to seven days of exposure. For new workers, institute a 20% increase of time in the heat each day. Workers already used to these conditions can increase exposure slightly faster, but four days out of the heat means that they’ll need re-acclimation.
- Don’t wear a hat. It restricts heat loss through the head. Workers operating in direct sunlight can wear a visor.
- Wear loose, thin synthetic fabrics. They help the skin stay cool through evaporation. Avoid cotton because it soaks up sweat, forestalling evaporation.
- Wear your PPE no matter what the temperature. It can’t protect you if it’s not on you. If it’s uncomfortable, take frequent breaks.
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