While idyllic images of summer — swimming, sipping a glass of lemonade, and grilling — might be nice, the reality of summer can be brutal for those who find themselves working outside during a heat wave. In Texas, we know to expect heat waves even long after summer has officially ended. According to a joint study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “workers who are exposed to extreme heat or work in hot environments…may be at risk for heat stress.” Just what is heat stress and how can you take steps to ensure the safety of your team during the hot summer months?
What is Heat Stress?
Heat stress occurs when the body builds heat, either caused by muscle use or high temperatures. As the internal body temperature rises, your heart rate increases. This can lead to several heat-related illnesses, often before workers realize there is a problem.
Heat stress can lead to such illnesses as:
Heat stroke, which is a life-threatening illness. As the body temperature increases, the worker can experience confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, high body temperature, and either hot, dry skin or profuse sweating. If this occurs, get the worker to a shady spot, wet them with cool water, and call 911.
Heat exhaustion is also a serious illness. The worker may complain of headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, heavy sweating, elevated body temperature, and/or decreased urine output. Take the worker immediately to a clinic or emergency room. Have the worker drink liquids, remove excess clothing, and place cold compresses on the head, neck, and face.
Heat cramps occur as the body loses salts and fluids with sweat. Drink plenty of water and get a snack. While it is no substitute for plain water, drinking a sports drink with electrolytes can help relieve cramps. Ensure that if the worker exhibits cramps, they get to a cooler, shady area immediately.
Heat rash is the most common problem outdoor workers experience during hot summer months. It is often on the neck, upper chest, groin area, and in skin creases. Keep the rash dry and avoid using ointments or creams. Powders may help relieve the discomfort.
Steps to Prevent Heat Stress
It’s impossible to avoid the heat while working outside during the hot summer months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that there are, however, practical steps to help ensure that your workers beat the heat. Some steps to prevent heat stress include:
Train employees to follow the buddy system. During times of heat waves, ensure that crew chiefs understand how to recognize the signs of heat stress and can act quickly.
Drink plenty of water. The CDC recommends drinking at least one cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Companies can help prevent the high cost of heat stress to people and business by proactively having large water coolers in trucks during the summer months.
Workers should wear light-colored clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton. Long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirts offer the best protection for those who must be outdoors.
Schedule work involving the heaviest lifting early in the morning. For example, you might schedule riding a mower or operating equipment during the heat of the day when it is easier to sit down.
Remind workers that it is harder to stay hydrated during the day if they had alcohol the evening before work. Encourage them to consider safety during summer heat waves.
Wear a wide-brimmed sunhat that shields the head. Encourage workers to keep a cool, damp rag around their necks and even wetting down a hat works well to lower body temperature.
Advise workers to slow down during the hottest part of the day. Workers who take frequent breaks are more productive during heat waves than those who attempt to continue working non-stop.
Ensure that air conditioning is functioning in all work vehicles. This gives workers a reprieve between jobs. It is also a place where they can cool down if they become overheated.
If you take steps to help your workers beat the heat during the summer heat waves, it will help keep everyone safe and on the job. If you have any questions, we’re always here to help.