Remember, the Heat's On

Drinking water is a large defense against heat-related illnesses, but there are other steps that can be taken to protect workers.

WITH the warm and humid summer months just around the corner, it is important to remember what kind of illnesses and other heat-related ailments can arise from being out in the heat too much.

Jerry Bach, vice president of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Safety Center, is an expert in trying to keep you safe during this time of the year. Bach wants you to remember that when a crew of workers or an individual works in a setting where heat can become a problem, this may lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or even death. You must know how to take control of the situation and not be victimized.

"You need to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke before they get out of control," Bach said. "Also, having enough water on hand can prevent or counteract these situations."

Staying hydrated is the main factor in avoiding heat-related illnesses. Four cups an hour is advised to enable the body to stave off heat-related problems. In fact, somewhere in the vicinity of two gallons of water a day is what is recommended by Bach for someone who works in a heat "at risk" environment. "Water isn't the sole prevention tool in fighting heat-related illnesses, but it sure is an important one," he said. "It keeps the body cool and able to cope with hot and humid situations, but only to a point."

If you work for a company that has its employees working in heat-related situations, it must have policies and written procedures to be followed. The policies and procedures should answer questions such as:

  • What do you do when it gets hot?
  • How long can employees work in the heat before receiving a break?
  • What should be done in the event of a medical emergency?

"Anyone who supervises a crew in the heat, whether it is a foreman or the company president, needs to be completely up to speed with these procedures," Bach said. "These individuals are responsible for their workers' well-being. and they must make sure any and all policies and procedures on the books are enforced."

Two Distinct Reactions to Heat
Don't be the hero when first starting to work in the heat, Bach said. Make sure you take it slowly and gradually build up your strength, endurance, and tolerance of the heat so your body gets used to the warm environment. "It actually can take anywhere from four to 10 days for the body to get used to the warmer elements," he said.

There are two main heat-related illnesses: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Even though they are similarly named, they are two very different reactions to heat, and it is necessary to know how to recognize and treat each one.

The less dangerous of the two (but a menace nonetheless) is heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is characterized by extreme sweating, pale face, blurred vision, dizziness, headache, and fatigue. If someone is seen with these symptoms, seek immediate emergency medical attention because heat exhaustion can be fatal.

Even more serious than heat exhaustion is heat stroke. Someone with heat stroke will most likely have hot, dry skin, can be shivering and having convulsions, exhibit bouts of restlessness and irritability, and can eventually collapse. Again, if someone is in this condition, seek immediate emergency medical attention. Heat stroke is often fatal.

"It doesn't matter: You don't want to suffer from either heat exhaustion or heat stroke," Bach said. "They'll have you off the job for some time, if they don't kill you first. We want you to be safe and come to work and then go home to your loved ones. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke won't let you do that. It is imperative that everyone become familiar with the symptoms of these two conditions, know how to treat them in the short term, and make sure proper medical attention is sought."

Other Preventive Steps to Consider
An 80-degree day might seem like a good opportunity to go for a walk and spend some time in the outdoors. However, for those working outside, 80 degrees Fahrenheit becomes the point at where the temperature becomes a concern for the workers. Needless to say, reaching the 90-degree mark and above just heightens the concern for the well-being of workers in regard to heat-related illnesses. For someone wearing protective clothing, heat-related illnesses can become a factor when the mercury is at just 70 degrees!

In addition, while humidity amplifies any heat-related problem, being in direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees on the heat index.

"What might seem like a nice day to go for a stroll or go outside for a while can be very rough on workers in those same conditions," Bach said. "Working in direct sunlight makes any situation that much more dangerous. Steps need to be taken to avoid turning a normal workday into a medical, and possibly life-threatening, emergency."

While drinking water is a large defense against heat-related illnesses, there are other steps that can be taken to protect workers. One is just having enough shade available for workers to rest under and cool off from the sun's direct rays. "The shade can come naturally, either from a tree or from canopies that have been set up," said Bach.

Another provision that can be taken is having a misting machine on hand that sprays water on the workers. The evaporation of that water will naturally cool the workers' bodies and keep their body temperatures down. One key thing here, Bach said, is to remember to check that the misting machine works before it is hauled out to the work site.

Supervisors also must give workers plenty of breaks and encourage them to take advantage of the shade, misting machine, or other provision taken to help fight the heat on a hot and humid summer day. "Take breaks, drink water, and stay safe," Bach summarized. He said still another tactic has been proven to keep workers safe, especially those who work in the construction and agricultural industries.

"If it is possible, to keep workers safe, start shifts earlier in the day, when it is very cool and comfortable, and end the shifts earlier than traditionally done," Bach said. "This will allow the workers to do the bulk of the work before it gets too hot and dangerous and finish up before the heat of the day is at its peak."

Basics Elements of a Heat Stress Program
Heat-related problems such as heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death can be minimized or even eradicated with the correct plan and approach. Make sure employees drink plenty of water throughout the day and take frequent breaks in a shaded area. If you provide a misting machine, ensure they take advantage of that benefit, too.

Also, make sure they recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, know the difference between them, and call for emergency personnel if they suspect someone is suffering from one of these ailments. And make sure your company has a plan or policies in place to deal with the dangers of working in heated environments.

"Follow these steps, and you should remain safe throughout the summer months when these illnesses traditionally rear their ugly heads," Bach said.

This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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