It's Getting Hot, Hot, Hot. How to Work Safely in the Sweltering Summer Heat.
With summer in full swing, it's that time of year again to talk about the very real and present dangers associated with working in the heat. As with all safety and health hazards, the best game plan is prevention. Knowing the dangers of working in the sun and what to do if you become ill are vital to your health and safety. Each year, more than 65,000 people seek medical treatment for extreme heat exposure. We'll discuss the most common heat-related illnesses and what to do if you should suffer from any this summer.
When Are We at Greatest Risk for Heat-Related Sickness?
The sun has the greatest intensity between the hours of 10:00am and 3:00pm Standard Time, which is also when workers are in the middle of their workday and may be exposed to the sweltering heat. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fair-skinned person can sunburn in as few as 10-15 minutes. Heat-related illnesses can occur more quickly than you may realize, and symptoms often tend to sneak up on you rather suddenly.
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.
Symptoms & Treatment. It looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters and is most commonly found on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases. If possible, 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.
Symptoms & Treatment. Symptoms include intermittent and involuntary spasms of larger muscles in the body. 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. If you are on a low-sodium diet, seek medical attention. Continue resting for several hours after the pain from the cramps goes away—returning 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.
Symptoms & Treatment. Symptoms may include heavy and excessive sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. 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 regulation 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.
Symptoms & 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. In the event of a heat stroke, call 911 immediately and do whatever you can to cool the victim's temperature down as quickly as possible until help arrives.
Prevention is key. But How?
Drink water, water and more water. Plenty of fresh water will keep the body hydrated and cool during intense heat. Avoid sugary and caffeinated beverages as these can dehydrate the body. Employees exposed to the sun for prolonged periods of time should also take frequent breaks in the shade, rest, apply sunscreen with at least SPF 15, and wear protective gear when possible. Employers should make sure employees are aware of the threats posed by the heat and know in advance what the heat index is for the day to prepare. 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.
Looking for a helpful tool to track the heat index? There's an app for that.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) partnered to bring you the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety tool — a mobile application that gives you real-time heat index and hourly forecasts for your location. This app is helpful for planning outdoor work activities and keeps you in-the-know on the current temperatures and associated risk levels. Compatible with Android and iPhone.
OSHA has a site dedicated to heat exposure with plenty of important 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 businesses 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 potential dangers. For more information, call 1-800-321-6742.