Protecting Workers from Heat-Related Illness
By: Lori Berdahl
The rising temperatures of summer bring a higher risk of heat-related illness. Those required to work in the heat are especially vulnerable. Workers should be encouraged to take precautions, watch for common signs and symptoms, and administer first aid quickly.
OSHA recommends acclimating workers to the heat by shortening or gradually increasing shifts for the first 5 to 7 high-temperature work days. Before acclimation, body temperature and pulse rate are higher, and general discomfort level is greater. Gradually increasing exposure to heat has been found to increase the sweat rate and gradually decrease other negative responses allowing workers to perform in the heat with less distress. However, even after becoming acclimated, workers should be encouraged to take more frequent rest breaks and follow other precautions to avoid heat-related illness.
Workers should be reminded and encouraged to drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after exertion, even if they don’t feel thirsty. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that each worker drink 1 cup of fluid for every 15 to 20 minutes of moderate activity in moderate heat conditions. Good choices include water, lemonade, diluted fruit juices, or electrolyte-rich sports drinks; caffeine and alcohol should be avoided.
Wearing a wide brim hat is a good choice because it protects the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp from the direct heat. Wearing light-weight, light colored, loose fitting clothing and periodically placing a cold rag on the neck to lower body temperature are two more effective prevention measures.
Because early treatment is so critical, workers should be encouraged to use a buddy system to watch for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness in each other. OSHA recommends administering first aid measures at the work site immediately upon the first signs of heat-related illness.
Heat rash appears as clusters of red bumps often on the neck, upper chest, and folds of the skin. The skin irritation is caused by sweat that does not fully evaporate. Keeping the affected areas dry, and avoiding prolonged work in hot, humid environments is recommended.
Heat cramps are painful muscle cramps caused by loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Arm, leg, and abdominal muscles are among those most frequently involved. Affected workers should rest in a shady, cool area while drinking water, diluted fruit juices, or electrolyte-rich sports drinks. They should wait a few hours before resuming strenuous work, and should be encouraged to seek medical attention if the cramping continues.
Heat exhaustion is the body's response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, fast heartbeat, and heavy sweating. Affected workers should immediately sit or lie down in a cool, shady area and drink plenty of cool water, diluted fruit juices, or electrolyte-rich sports drinks. Others should provide cold compresses/ice packs, observe symptoms, and drive the worker to medical care if symptoms worsen or do not improve within 45 to 60 minutes.
If ignored or not adequately treated, heat exhaustion could lead to heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat-related illness, occurring when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat. Workers should be encouraged to watch themselves and others for the additional symptoms, which can include confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. Because heat stroke can quickly shut down major body organs causing heart, liver, kidney, and muscle damage, it is a medical emergency and workers should seek medical care by calling 911 immediately.
Providing simple reminders to take precautions and watch for symptoms can go a long way toward preventing dangerous heat-related illness. Stay cool and stay safe!
Lori Berdahl is an occupational therapist and holds the Certified Ergonomic Evaluation Specialist designation. She is an Ergonomics and Loss Control Specialist with RAS.