Rehydrate, Rest, Repeat: Summer Safety Reminders for Outdoor Workers
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of HRIs and preparing employees for warmer weather are critical to creating a sustainable, healthy workforce during warmer months.
- By Reed Erickson
- Jun 14, 2021
The pavement is sizzling hot—and so are you on a cloudless summer day. During the warmest months of the year, many workers’ compensation claims stem from heat-related illnesses (HRI), which can occur due to a combination of metabolic heat, that is, heat created by the body, and environmental heat, which includes increased air temperature, humidity, radiant heat from sunlight or other heat sources such as furnaces and air movement.
Experiencing an HRI is especially likely for outdoor workers, such as construction workers, who often work outside in high temperatures during the heat of the day. Although construction workers only comprise about six percent of the U.S.’ total workforce, they accounted for 36 percent of all heat-related deaths from 1992-2016. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of HRIs and preparing employees for warmer weather are critical to creating a sustainable, healthy workforce during warmer months.
1. Learn the signs of HRIs
Heat-related illnesses can include mild ailments like heat cramps, heat syncope, heat rash, rhabdomyolysis and more severe problems like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. What’s more, there are many different signs and symptoms of HRIs – making it even more important for supervisors, managers and employees to know what to be on the lookout for.
Some common signs an employee is experiencing an HRI include:
• Heavy sweating
• Hot, dry skin*
• Very high body temperature
• Rapid heart rate
• Clusters of red bumps on neck, upper chest, and skin folds
• Dark urine or reduced urine output
• Slurred speech*
• Muscle spasms or pain
* If these symptoms are present, call 911 immediately, as these are signs of heat stroke.
How to Respond
If a worker is experiencing any signs of an HRI, have them immediately stop working and move them to a cool, shaded area. Remove any unnecessary clothing and apply cold cloths to the head, neck, chest, armpits and groin to help them cool off. Stay with them until help arrives. Remember: if you’re ever in doubt about what to do, move the worker to a cool area, call 911 and remain with them until paramedics arrive.
2. Adjust employee expectations to match work experience
In severe heat, your body’s core temperature and heart rate may increase to the point where you may faint or become exhausted simply from standing too long. Naturally, this means that employees working vigorously in the same conditions can rapidly develop a severe HRI, no matter how hydrated or prepared they may be. Humidity can also play a major role in HRIs in that as the humidity levels increase, evaporative heat loss due to sweating becomes much less effective.
Those most at risk for HRIs are employees who are new to outdoor work. Sadly, almost half of heat-related deaths occur on a worker’s very first day on the job, and more than 70 percent of heat-related deaths occur during a worker’s first week. This is largely due to a lack of heat acclimation, which the process of how your body gradually adapts and tolerates higher levels of heat. When workers fail to recognize the physical stress heat creates in a working environment, they place themselves at higher risk for experiencing an HRI.
In addition to workers who are have no experience working outdoors, all employees are more susceptible to HRIs if they:
• Wear additional protective clothing
• Work with increased physical activity
• Are returning to work after more than a week off
• Are working through seasonal changes, including heat waves
Additionally, factors such as obesity, dehydration and poor physical fitness, as well as many common prescription and over-the-counter medications, may also increase the risk of an employee developing an HRI.
Though some companies have formal policies on how to ease new workers into their duties, others don’t, which can make it especially challenging to ensure new workers stay safe within their first few weeks on the job. No matter the occupation, outdoor workers need time to gradually build up the amount of work they do in the heat until they can comfortably manage a full load. When managers expect employees to perform a full outdoor workload without having heat acclimation, they place them at greater risk for injury and illness.
OSHA outlines that managers should have employees work in outdoor settings for 20 percent of their day to start and increase their outdoor work by 20 percent each day to allow them to develop heat acclimatization. Even with this process in place, managers should aim to reduce the amount of heavy work performed between 10 AM and 4 PM, when the sun is strongest, and allow employees to take frequent water and rest breaks. Shift work is another strategy to consider when conditions are hottest to ensure that adequate rest and rehydration is allowed between hard labor.
3. Prioritize rest and fluids
During work shifts and breaks, managers should ensure their employees rehydrate with plenty of water or sugar-free, electrolyte-added sports drinks. These replenish essential water and nutrients that are lost through sweat. In hot weather, workers should be drinking one 8 oz. cup of water every 20 minutes – and if they’re outside for more than two hours, they should drink an electrolyte-added sports drink. Be sure to provide an on-site water cooler and sports drinks during summer months to promote good hydration and keep employees healthy.
Reminding employees to rest is another way to help them recover when temperatures soar. Whether it’s sitting or lying down underneath a shaded area, moving to an air-conditioned vehicle, or going inside an air-conditioned building, taking a break in a cool spot is important for employees to restore energy for the next bout of work. If there isn’t shade readily available at a work-site, consider investing in canopies or tents so employees can rest without the hassle of finding a cool location.
4. Pay attention to weather conditions
This may seem obvious, but when deadlines need to be met and you’re behind schedule, sometimes it’s easy to ignore changing weather conditions throughout the day. Planning ahead for hot days can help managers recognize what days are best for the most intensive labor and create work schedules accordingly. As temperatures rise in summer, air quality also tends to decrease, which can impact work performance and worker health and exacerbate health conditions like asthma. Refer often to local weather guidance to help prepare for projects ahead of time and continue to monitor in real-time to promote worker safety.