Summer is here and the weather is hot. This is the time of year to be concerned about heat-related illnesses. Heat-related illnesses can occur indoors as well as outdoors. Accidents are more frequent in hot weather because it can decrease mental alertness and reduce job performance. This article will help us become aware of risk factors and symptoms, and how to help others with heat-related illness.
Risk Factors for Heat Illnesses
- High temperature and high humidity
- Direct sun exposure (with little or no shade)
- Limited air movement (no breeze or wind)
- Low liquid intake, excessive sweating
- No recent exposure to hot environments or history of previous heat-related illness
- Children under the age of 4, adults over the age of 65, or pregnant
- Persons with chronic diseases, obesity or frequent alcohol use
Heat-related health problems include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps. Understanding signs of heat-related illness, knowing how to assist and when to call for help are important when workers are exposed to hot, humid environments.
Heat stroke is the most serious and is an emergency. Call 911 right away. Affected workers will have hot, dry skin, or may have excess sweating. They will become confused and may progress to fainting and seizures. Move the person to a cool or shaded location away from sun and heat, remove outer clothing and shoes. Wet the worker with cool water or use ice all over the body. Be sure someone stays with the worker while waiting for professional medical help.
Heat exhaustion causes a worker to experience dizziness, headache, irritability, thirst, decreased urinary output, heavy sweating, nausea and vomiting, and weakness. The worker will need to have a medical evaluation at a clinic or emergency room before returning to work. Move the worker to a shaded area and provide sips of cool water to drink. Remove outer clothing and apply cold compresses or cold water to the head, neck and face. You should call for help and have someone stay with the worker until help arrives.
Heat or muscle cramps may occur during or after working in hot environments. These painful cramps are the result of lost salt and water during sweating. Affected workers should be moved to a shaded or cool area. Replacing lost fluids by drinking water, and electrolyte replacement drinks (e.g. Gatorade®) or light snacks are best. Seek medical help if the cramps do not go away in one hour, or if the worker has a heart condition, or taking blood pressure medications or diuretics for any health conditions.
Three words to remember in preventing heat-related illnesses are water, rest and shade. Under hot conditions workers need to drink about a cup of water every 15 minutes. Water should be cool (50-60° F), easy to access and pleasant tasting. Take frequent rest breaks in cool, shaded areas. Maintain a schedule for water and rest breaks.
Any one working in hot environments needs to recognize symptoms of heat-related illnesses. On the job, use a buddy system and check on each other routinely every hour. Persons new to working in the heat, taking blood pressure medications or diuretics, 65 or older, or overweight should be monitored closely. These workers are at high risk and should have gradual increase in workload and more frequent breaks the first week.
Prevention of heat-related illnesses requires employer planning. Effective planning improves worker comfort, productivity and safety. During heat waves, schedule the most physically demanding work during cooler times of the day, if possible. Another plan is to provide alternative work areas with shade and cooler environments. Schedule routine maintenance repairs and projects during spring or fall. Consider using additional workers and alternate work and rest cycles so work can be completed without interruptions. When indoors, improve ventilation with window fans, air blowers, or air conditioners.
Prevention of heat-related illnesses also requires worker planning. When outdoors, workers should use brimmed hats to help shade the body. Wearing light-colored cotton clothing reduces body heat. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and sugary beverages. Take your breaks in the shade, drink a cup of water every 15 minutes and do not skip meals. Monitor your response and the response of your coworkers to the heat. Call for help when needed.
In summary, be on the alert for symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Know when to take prompt action to prevent death or permanent disability. Remember the three key words to prevention are water, shade and rest. Plan work to reduce risk of heat-related illnesses. Identify workers at high risk and use a buddy system to watch out for all workers in hot environments.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Heat stress. Retrieved from [PDF document] https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha-niosh-heat-illness-infosheet.pdf
Occupational Safety and Health Association. (n.d.). Protecting workers from heat illnesses.
Department of Health and Human Services (OSHA 3438-5-11) Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha-niosh-heat-illness-infosheet.pdf
-Kim Vickous, MSN, RN