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Workplace Summer Safety Tips

It's now officially summer, and as the temperature outside continues to rise, so too does the danger of working in it. Every year, thousands of workers suffer some form of injury or illness from becoming overheated on the job, and some even die. These are preventable.

How does heat affect the body?

Generally speaking, the body is constantly regulating itself to keep a consistent internal temperature. When that starts to get higher, it tries to release excess heat by circulating more blood to the skin and by sweating. If the air is cooler than the skin temperature, the blood circulation will release heat to the air; but if the air is too warm, that doesn't work and the regulation becomes more difficult. Sweating can be very effective, but only when the sweat is able to evaporate off the skin, as that is what actually provides the cooling. If the air is too humid, or the sweat is trapped inside form-fitting, unbreathable clothing, it won't work. Additionally, sweating means you need to replace the fluids and salts being lost.

What are the dangers?

There are four common medical problems caused by heat exposure: heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Heat rash is just what it sounds like: a rash caused by too much heat. The skin becomes irritated by excessive sweating, particularly during humid times when it can't evaporate well. It looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It's most commonly found on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.

The treatment, like for all of these illnesses, is to move to a cooler environment, at least temporarily. Keep the area dry—do not wash with water unless it is immediately toweled. You can also use a drying powder to soothe some of the feelings of irritation.

Heat cramps are pains felt in the muscles, often with spasms, and usually in conjunction with strenuous activity. They're often caused by a depletion of the body's salt and fluids through excessive sweating, and can also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.

The treatment is to stop activity and rest in a cool place. Drink juice or a sports beverage, to replace the fluids and salts, but DO NOT take a salt pill unless directed by a doctor, and if you are on a low-sodium diet, seek medical attention. Continue resting for several hours after the pain from the cramps goes away—continuing to work too soon puts you at serious risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If the heat cramps do not subside within one hour of resting, seek medical attention.

Heat exhaustion is the beginning of the body breaking down by being unable to regulate its internal temperature. There are many symptoms, including heavy and excessive sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. Despite the heat, the skin may feel cool and moist, while breathing will be fast and shallow while the pulse will likely be fast and weak. It does not take all of these symptoms to indicate heat exhaustion; some people may only show a few of them. It can occur after several days of exposure to high temperatures and not replacing fluids and salts sufficiently, which means it can take place at the beginning of a shift, even if not much has been done that day or the temperature does not seem unreasonable.

The treatment is to stop working immediately, get somewhere much cooler or even take a cool shower or bath, and drink cool beverages that are nonalcoholic. If clothing is heavy or tight, change into something lightweight and airy. As with heat cramps, wait several hours after the symptoms subside before returning to work. If the symptoms get worse during treatment, or if they last longer than one hour, seek medical attention. Not treating heat exhaustion can lead to the more severe heat stroke.

Heat stroke is the most serious of the heat-related illnesses. The body's temperature regulations system breaks down entirely, and the body is unable to cool itself. Body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher in as little as 10-15 minutes. At that point, vital organs, including the brain, can become damaged. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability without emergency treatment. There are several warning signs of heat stroke, and not all of them need to be present: an extremely high body temperature (103°F or higher); skin that is red, hot, and dry, without sweating; a strong, fast pulse; a throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea, possibly with vomiting; confusion; and possibly unconsciousness.

The treatment is to quickly get the sufferer to a cool place, even if it's just a shady area, and call for emergency medical help. Do whatever you can to cool the person down quickly, dousing them in water. Maintain efforts to cool them until help arrives or their temperature drops down to 101°F or lower. If medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital for further instructions.

Who's at risk?

Though anyone can be susceptible to heat-induced illnesses, there are conditions that can increase the risk. Age can play a part, as children 0-4 years old and those 65 years of age and older are more likely to suffer symptoms. People who are dehydrated either through not drinking enough water or through binging on alcoholic or caffeinated drinks also increase their chances of becoming ill. People who have heart disease, fever, obesity, mental illness, poor circulation, or a sunburn are also at greater risk. Many prescription drugs can also add to the threat; if you are on a prescription drug and will be working in hot conditions, either outside or in a factory or other location that has high temperatures, check with your doctor to see if you are in danger.

What preventive measures can be taken?

Increase the amount of fluids you drink, but avoid alcohol, caffeine, and overly sugary drinks; if you are involved in heavy activity, experts recommend drinking 2-4 glasses of cool fluids each hour. Be sure there are cool places around and take frequent breaks in them. If you will be working in the sun, be sure to use a sunscreen rated at SPF15 or higher. You can also use a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your head. Wear light, loose-fitting clothes.

Employers should make sure employees know the threats of working in hot conditions and have a system of breaks and rotation work. Cool areas, preferably an air conditioned one, should be made available for anyone who needs to escape the heat, and water around 50-60°F should be available in abundance. Workers wearing protective gear that includes tight-fitting clothes that do not breathe should be on a shorter rotation and have extra breaks to keep cool, as they are at higher risk.

For new workers or workers returning after two weeks or more out of the conditions, a graduated system should be used to get them acclimated to the heat. Start them off with only 50% of the load they would be expected to carry. Increase it gradually so at the end of a week they are performing the normal level of work.

When looking at a weather forecast to predict conditions, use the heat index instead of just the temperature. The heat index takes both temperature and humidity into account to give a more accurate account of how conditions will affect the body. Once the heat index gets into the 90s and above, threats start getting severe and precautions need to be raised.

Additional Information

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has a site dedicated to heat exposure with lots of information. It can be found here: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/

OSHA also provides small business with on-site consultations for free. This is available to business with fewer than 250 workers at a site, and with no more than 500 employees nationwide. This is not an enforcement visit, and it will not result in penalties or citations. It merely evaluates conditions and provides information on how to mitigate the dangers. For more information, call 1-800-321-6742.