Summer temperatures bring special jobsite hazards for those working outdoors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), at least 815 workers were killed and 70,000 injured due to heat stress between 1992 and 2017. Understanding the risks and preventative measures surrounding heat-related illness is crucial to helping employees beat the heat during the summer months.
What is the heat index and how do you read it?
The heat index is a critical component that helps you understand how to prepare for being outdoors or working in a hot environment. The heat index is a measure that combines the air temperature and relative humidity. Together, this is the temperature that our bodies perceive. This means that even though the temperature reads 99, it feels like 104 degrees outside because of the actual air and humidity.
Temperature only shows half the picture. The heat index, which combines temperature and humidity, is a more accurate reflection of the climate and how it will affect you.
What is heat illness?
Heat-related illnesses occur when the body is not able to lose enough heat to balance the heat generated by physical work and external heat sources. Workers become overheated from two primary sources: the environmental conditions and the internal heat generated by physical labor. Heat related illnesses can affect each person different and progress quickly. There are four types that you should know about and understand their symptoms:
Types of heat-related illnesses
Heat rash is when the skin becomes irritated because sweat is not evaporating from the skin. It looks like clusters of red bumps and often occurs on the neck or upper chest. Heat rash is the most common issue seen in hot environments.
Heat cramps are caused by fluid and electrolyte loss. Sweating causes a loss of body salts, and when levels are low enough, it can lead to heat cramps. These are usually in the form of muscle spasms or pain in the abdomen, arms or legs. Tired muscles are more likely to experience heat cramps, and they can even occur after working hours when you're out of the heat.
Heat exhaustion happens after heavy sweating causes a loss of water and salt. People experiencing heat exhaustion normally have a headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst and heavy sweating. They also normally have a faster heart beat and cool and clammy skin.
Heat stroke occurs when the body can no longer regulate its core temperature. When a person experiences a heat stroke, they are often confused. They can lose consciousness and experience hallucinations. Their body stops sweating and they may feel chills, exhibit slurred speech or have seizures. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and can lead to death if not treated quickly.
What are risk factors for heat illness?
Any employee who works outdoors is at risk of heat illnesses. This includes industries such as farm work, construction, oil and gas, landscaping, emergency response operations and hazardous waste. The danger is not exclusive to outdoor workers; indoor workers can be at risk of heat stress too. Many industries work in environments with high heat sources or in buildings with no air conditioning or limited air circulation, such as iron and steel foundries, commercial kitchens or distribution warehouses.
What do you do when someone has heat-related illness symptoms?
If someone has signs of heat-related illness, it's important to:
Move them somewhere cool and shaded as soon as possible. Ideally, you would move them into an air-conditioned space and allow them to rest and make sure they cool off. In some instances, you might need to move them under a tree or somewhere with shade until a better solution can be found.
Loosen any tight clothing and remove anything that's unnecessary like shoes, socks, belts and personal protective equipment like vests or fall protection harnesses.
You should apply cool cloths or cold compresses to help their body's temperature decrease.
To cool down their body, try fanning the person with a portable fan or any item that can be used to circulate cool air.
Help them drink cool water at a slow but consistent pace. It's important to replenish fluids steadily. For less severe illnesses, such as cramps, sports drinks can also help replenish nutrients.
If heat cramps don't subside within an hour or if any symptoms worsen, get medical assistance for the employee. And as with any other injury or illness, don't leave the employee to fend for themselves. Have someone take the employee to get medical attention.
If a person shows signs of heat stroke such as confusion, fainting or seizures, call 911 immediately. While you wait for assistance, follow the other tips mentioned above. Someone should remain with the employee until help arrives.
How can employees protect themselves from the sun?
Stay cool: Stay indoors as much as possible. If you do need to be outside, try to limit your exposure to the sun and always wear sunscreen. Wear light-weight, loose colored, loose fitting clothing along with a hat and sunglasses to block out direct sunlight.
Stay hydrated: Be sure to drink water consistently when working outdoors or in hot environments. The CDC recommends about one cup of water every 15-20 minutes when working in the heat. If workers are outside for extended periods of time, sports drinks can help to balance electrolytes. Avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol or that are high in sugar.
Stay informed: Check your local weather and know the signs of heat-related illnesses. Use the buddy system to lookout for coworkers.
How can employers help prevent heat illness?
As an employer, you can help keep your employees safe in the heat by providing engineering controls, administrative controls personal protective equipment (PPE) and a heat illness prevention program.
The hierarchy of controls (below) identifies what level of protection is needed based on the heat index. It gives you a more accurate representation of how much discomfort you will feel when you go outside.
Engineering controls deliver the most effective protection against heat illness. Engineering controls eliminate the hazard at its source:
Provide air conditioning and/or cooling fans
Increase ventilation; provide portable ventilation when possible
Install local exhaust ventilation, such as exhaust hoods in laundry rooms and other hot, moist workplaces
Redirect heat with reflective shields
Insulate hot surfaces, such as furnace walls
Administrative controls are the second-most effective way to control heat illness. Administrative controls change the way employees do their work. The goal is to reduce exposure to the hazard:
PPE is your least-effective control against workplace hazards because it carries risk. PPE could be damaged, and it could give the user a false sense of security. So, PPE should always be your last line of defense against workplace hazards:
Broad-brimmed hats with neck flaps
Light-colored, breathable clothing
Safety glasses with tinted, polarized lenses
SPF 15-25 sunblock
Water-cooled garments, air-cooled garments, cooling vests and wetted over-garments
Insulated gloves, insulated suits, reflective clothing and infrared reflecting face shields
Thermally conditioned clothing, such as a garment with a self-contained air conditioner in a backpack
A garment with a compressed air source that feeds cool air through a vortex tube
A plastic jacket with pockets filled with dry ice or containers of ice
Heat illness prevention program
To help you protect your employees, you should have a heat illness prevention program in place that documents and educates your employees on:
The hazards of heat stress
Predisposing factors, danger signs and symptoms of heat illness
What to do in the event of an emergency
The employee's responsibility in avoiding heat stress
The dangers of using drugs, including therapeutic ones and alcohol in hot work environments
How to properly use protective clothing and equipment
For more tips on heat safety, watch our webinar and log in to texasmutual.com to visit our safety resource center.
Disclaimer: WorkersCompensation.com publishes independently generated writings from a variety of workers' compensation industry stakeholders. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of WorkersCompensation.com.