Outdoor work during these hot summer months adds additional stress to our body’s coolant system. Heat stroke, heat stress, or heat exhaustion – to distinguish between these terms does not matter – any form of heat stress can impair function.
Working in extreme heat lowers the body’s reaction time and can put workers at risk. When our body’s internal temperature cannot cool itself fast enough, our body will react.
Heat is a leading weather-related killer in the U.S. Death from excessive heat can be explicit – meaning it is the underlying factor that caused the person to die. Or heat can be a contributing factor to the worker’s death – meaning the heat placed them at risk for other workplace hazards.
In this second example, heat could cause eyeglasses to fog up, create sweaty palms that loose grip, or invoke dizziness or irrational behaviors. Persons with cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses can also be vulnerable to heat; making heart attacks, strokes and other circulatory system attacks more common during the summer months.
Besides the sun and heat, wearing additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can burden our body’s regulatory capacity and place workers at increased risk for heat illnesses. Human skin is an important body organ. Its function is to regulate the heat and protect our other cells from damaging heat or trauma.
Certain PPE (i.e. gloves, boots, rubber aprons) can interfere with our skin’s sweat response system by holding excess heat and moisture inside. This makes our body even hotter.
Wearing extra PPE can increase the physical effort for our muscles to carry additional weight while we work, thereby increasing our body’s heat production. Respirators and face masks can increase the physical labor on our respiratory system.
For all outdoor workers, there are steps to take to reduce heat exposure. When workers need the benefit of PPE protection, there are additional steps they can take. The main goal in any heat-related situation is to lower the core body temperature.
Drink fluids before you are thirsty
- Encourage workers to drink small amounts of water more frequently throughout the work shift.
- During strenuous work, persons should have 1 cup (8oz) of water every 15 – 20 minutes
Schedule more frequent rest breaks in hot weather
- Taking breaks allows the body to reduce the core temperature.
- Sitting in the shade or air-conditioning will help get the core body temperature lower in a faster period of time.
- During breaks, drink water and allow the body to rest.
- Remove PPE during breaks.
- Use cold packs or wet towels to continue cooling and reducing the body temperature.
Acclimate to the work environment
- Condition your body to outdoor work by gradually working outside for short periods of time. It may take 1 – 2 weeks to be at full capacity
- New workers are at increased risk of heat exhaustion if they have not acclimated their bodies to sweating or stabilizing their breathing.
Check on workers throughout the day
- Make sure workers have access to water and shade during extreme heat conditions.
- Senior workers may need extra rest times and could experience additional cardiovascular disease deaths.
- Check for signs of heat exhaustion: dizziness, excessive sweating, cold clammy skin
Wear the right clothes for the job
- Lighter colored clothing will not absorb as much heat. However lighter colors may not have UV protection from the sun’s rays.
- Choose apparel that is loose fitting and breathable.
- Wide brimmed hats (with a 3-4” brim all the way around) will protect the top of the ears and back of the neck from UV rays. Ball caps are not the best work hats in direct sunlight.
- Try wearable personal cooling systems to keep the core body temperature low throughout the work shift. Ice vests, cooling bandanas, or other water-cooled garments are available, and often can be worn in conjunction with PPE.
As the summer heat continues on, outdoor workers should take extra precaution for heat-related stress. Workers of all ages and experience levels can succumb to these dangerously high temperatures. Prevention is the best course of action.