Heat Stress: How to Mitigate Disaster

Summertime brings warmer weather, but it also its own set of risks for those working in the summer heat. It's not the sun that causes heat stress, but heat and loss of liquids in the body, which means indoor and outdoor workers alike are at risk.

Heat stress is comprised of several levels – from the commonly contracted heat rashes and cramps to the more severe levels of heat exhaustion and stroke, when the body's temperature control measures finally break down and create an immediate medical emergency. The objective for safety managers is to eliminate incidences of heat exhaustion and stroke and minimize incidences of heat rash and cramps. Looming as an obstacle is an attribute that is normally admired – self-confidence. Self-confidence becomes a significant difficulty when it develops into overconfidence for employees who work in high temperatures or humid climates. We've all heard the comments, "It's not that bad" or "I'll be fine." This is a very dangerous attitude when confronted with the conditions for heat stress.

Physical labor in extreme heat can endanger the health of employees, so safety managers should be prepared to respond with a heat stress prevention plan. To assist in preventing work-related heat illness, the following tips provide a basis for implementing a summer safety plan:

  • Think beyond water. Water isn't enough if you're working in the heat – make sure you're offering the right beverages for your workers. While sports drinks seem like a good option, employees lose fluid differently than athletes, so be mindful of drinks with electrolyte and potassium levels specific for their needs. Water and electrolyte replacement drinks should be drunk every 15 minutes to avoid cramping problems.
  • Provide electrolytes beyond fluids. Offer dual-purpose hydrating snacks that taste good but also provide necessary electrolytes, such as popsicles, which cool as they hydrate, and gummy snacks that keep electrolyte levels up throughout the day.
  • Encourage lightweight and light-colored clothing. For roles without a strict dress code, preach comfort and performance for clothing choices in extreme heat. There are many options for athletic attire made from microfiber, polyester fabric that moves sweat away from the body and to the fabric surface, where it evaporates.
  • Offer cooling gear. Cooling bandanas and vests are a great way to ensure employees' comfort in hot conditions. For outdoor workers, it’s important their vision is not impaired by the sunlight, so consider sunglasses that attach to the back of their hard hats.
  • Encourage breaks. Where possible, enforce shorter work sessions and longer breaks when temperatures rise to allow for acclimation to the heat. Exhaustion from overwork and overexposure to the sun can waylay a safety manager's best-laid plans.
  • Educate your staff. Emphasize the need for workers to protect themselves and make products readily accessible to encourage use. Train them to recognize favorable conditions for and symptoms of heat stress. Consider placing posters around the workplace that highlight the daily heat index and how much liquid workers should consume. Education should be a regular and ongoing process.

Extreme heat can put employees in danger, and safety managers and decision makers will feel the heat if they don't take precautionary measures. It's better to over-prepare than suffer the consequences of workers falling ill with heat sickness.

Bob Risk is the National Sales Manager, Safety for Staples Business Advantage.

Posted on Aug 11, 2016