As summer draws on and the sun hangs longer in the sky, finding that much needed relief from the heat can be a challenge, particularly for those that work outside for extended periods of time. Even so, preventing heat stress, heat stroke, and other heat-related health issues comes from knowing how to work safely in hot weather.
During 2010, OSHA reported 2,365 cases of heat stress or stroke. This translates into over 68,000 minor heat stress-related incidents requiring first aid and over 700,000 “near misses” (1).
It can seem difficult to dress comfortably in hot weather, especially while adhering to increases in safety regulations surrounding personal protective equipment (PPE) and FRC. The bottom-line, however, is that you should never sacrifice safety for comfort. Workers need to be vigilant about safety and should never take off necessary protective layers that they feel are uncomfortable.
Heat exhaustion can occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures for several days and have become dehydrated. The two main types of heat exhaustion are water depletion and salt depletion. Heat exhaustion is not as serious as heat stroke. However, without proper diagnosis or treatment, heat exhaustion can progress into heat stroke which can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs, or even death (2).
Heat stroke is the most serious risk for those who work outside during the summer, and should be treated as a medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body can no longer control its own temperature, leading to damage of the brain and other internal organs (3). If emergency treatment is not provided, heat stroke can cause permanent disability or even death.
Humidity or dryness can make a big difference in how the heat feels in your area. Excessive dryness in climates like the southwestern part of the United States can feel overwhelmingly hot. Humidity can have a similar effect, but what makes it even more dangerous is its effect on the body. Humidity inhibits the body’s natural ability to produce sweat, which evaporates off the skin and cools the body (4).
OSHA’s Heat Smartphone App calculates the heat index for your location and provides guidance to prevent stress and illness. It is available for Android and iPhone. Employers can also refer to OSHA’s Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers. Both the app and the guide are one of many resources OSHA is offering as part of its Heat Illness Prevention Campaign (5).
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk and it’s advisable to combine many of these recommendations. For starters, drink water every 15 minutes, even if you aren’t thirsty. Wear a hat and light-colored clothing while you work. Be aware of other coworkers’ conditions and know where you are working in case you need to call 911. Take frequent breaks and be sure to rest in the shade and hydrate (6). Avoid drinks that are high in caffeine or sugar and do not overexert yourself, as your body is already working quite hard to keep itself cool.
Awareness of risks during summer months, proper identification of symptoms, and environmental and body temperature monitoring programs are all countermeasures that, if implemented, will reduce illnesses related to heat stress (1).
References for this blog post were accessed June 2014:
(1) OHS: Occupational Health & Safety magazine, March 2013, Walking the Path to Effective Controls: http://ohsonline.com/articles/2013/03/01/walking-the-path-to-effective-controls.aspx