Stop Sweating Heat Stress
Addressing heat stress in the workplace will not only keep your workers safe and productive, but it can also prevent employee turnover.
- By Alex Risen
- Jun 01, 2020
Safe, productive employees are important to any operation’s bottom line. However, engagement is more than a matter of attitude and work ethic. Environmental factors—like hot temperatures—reduce the energy, focus and passion employees can dedicate to their tasks. Sub-optimal conditions can also lead to injuries and employee turnover, sending tenured, high-performing employees into the arms of competitors.
Air movement and improved airflow combat heat, improve productivity and reduce workplace illness and injury in the toughest environments. Focusing on employee comfort can improve morale as much as a pay raise, and workplace improvements provided give employers a compelling advantage in recruiting qualified employees and keeping them engaged long-term in a competitive labor market.
A significant cost of heat stress is decrease in worker productivity due to the earliest symptoms—heavy sweating, fatigue, lack of focus and irritation. In fact, studies have shown productivity decreases by about one percent for every degree the temperature rises above 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Workers can’t achieve their highest throughput when they feel lethargic and need to take more breaks on warmer days, which leaves their stations unmanned for five to 10 minutes multiple times per day.
Heat stress can strike anyone at any time, no matter their age, physical fitness or experience level. However, few groups are more at risk than employees who work in hot environments. The combination of physical exertion and high temperatures can bring on heat-related illness with little to no warning. By providing comfortable, refreshing airflow to large areas, employers can not only prevent the onset of heat stress but also keep workers productive. The air movement makes perspiration more effective and efficient, helping the body to maintain its ideal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit and creating a wind-chill effect that makes workers feel up to 10 degrees cooler.
Employee comfort should not be viewed as a privilege or treated as an afterthought. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thousands of annual reported heat injuries are so serious that they result in time away from work. In 2018, the National Weather Service reported 108 fatalities from heat stroke in the United States alone, making it by far the deadliest weather phenomenon. The focus needs to be places not only on preventing heat stress, but providing far more efficient means than air conditioning, using about two percent of the energy of the average air conditioner, fans thoroughly engineered to operate in hot, humid, and dusty environments for decades can result in immediate ROI in addition to comfort.
Air movement and increased airflow are critical components for keeping workers on task and on their feet, while putting money back into the pockets of employers.
How To Use Fans to Fight Heat Illness:
Stay Hydrated. Fans cool people by helping evaporate sweat, which carries heat away from the body. To prevent the onset of heat illness, people in the path of the airflow must stay hydrated for efficient perspiration. OSHA recommends employees drink at least one pint of water per hour in hot climates.
Use Big Fans. An 8- to 24-foot HVLS fan can easily outperform 20 to 50 traditional fans in terms of coverage area. Employers with more than two or three employees should ensure everyone receives a cooling breeze by choosing large ceiling-mounted, wall-mounted or mobile fans to provide a safer, quality work environment.
Use Directional Fans Outdoors. Outdoor workers are at the highest risk of heat illness on warmer days. Versatile, mobile directional fans provide portable cooling options, delivering powerful airflow up to 120 feet away from the source and allowing workers to rest and recuperate more quickly.
Douse Victims of Heat Stroke. When heat illness rises to the level of heat stroke, perspiration becomes ineffective at keeping the body cool, making airflow alone inefficient for reversing the effects. While waiting for emergency medical care to arrive, cool the victim rapidly by dousing them in water, placing them in a cold bath or placing wet towels on them—the airflow from a fan will once again provide fast evaporative cooling and expedite the recovery process.
The trend toward providing comfortable work environments is more than just a fad. Experienced employers know workers who don’t feel cared for are less likely to care about their jobs and more likely to seek employment elsewhere. Low morale is a significant expense, as is employee turnover. In busy facilities, keeping workers safe and content is easier said than done. Even in big buildings like warehouses, manufacturing facilities and auto body shops, space can be at a premium. Tools that keep workers safe and comfortable—like box fans, evaporative coolers, and task lights—are often shoved aside to make room for equipment and personnel that directly affect throughput.
However, one area typically remains uncluttered: the ceiling. A retrofit that utilizes and emphasizes overhead fans brings cooling airflow to any business, improving the work environment without taking up valuable floor space.
Ceiling-mounted fans are available in a variety of diameters, with HVLS fans ranging from eight to 24 feet wide, and there are a wide range of mounting options for all types of girders and beams. By providing a massive amount of vertical airflow, they move air over and around obstacles that would block the breeze of a box fan or pedestal fan, effectively cooling more employees. In the winter, large diameter overhead fans redistribute heat that rises to the ceiling back down to the ground level, keeping workers warm and reducing heater run time. This improved air circulation reduces heating bills by up to 30 percent, providing an even quicker return on investment.
When employees suffer from uncomfortable, cluttered work environments, business owners and facility managers only need to look up to find the solution.
Cooling with Air Conditioning
Why add fans to conditioned spaces?
- Fans work in tandem with air conditioning systems to make them more effective.
- Fans use a fraction of the energy of an HVAC system, thereby reducing overall energy consumption.
- Increased air movement from fans makes occupants feel cooler, allowing designers and users to raise thermostat set points without sacrificing comfort.
- Each degree off set reduces HVAC-related energy usage by three to six percent.
Combating Heat Stress
The elevated air speed from fans makes occupants feel up to 10 degrees cooler by eliminating the boundary layer of warmer air surrounding the skin and quickly evaporating sweat. This premise holds several benefits for workers in uncomfortable and unconditioned industrial spaces such as reduced incidence of heat exhaustion and injury, reduction of “Very Hot” hours, increased productivity and increased retention of skilled employees.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.