OSEA Safety Blog

It's Getting Hot in Here

Tuesday, July 20, 2021 Ariana Naumovski

Summer months and the heat that comes with it is a bittersweet thing. We can finally get away from the cold, agonizing winter months and enjoy the beautiful, hot, humid weather that summer has to offer. Unfortunately for many working men and women, heat can be very hazardous under the right conditions. We generally think of working in a hot environment being uncomfortable and sweaty, but heat stress goes beyond just that.

We hear a lot about heat strokes during the hot summer months, however, hazardous heat exposure can occur indoors or outdoors and can occur during any season if the conditions are right, not only during heat waves.

A person affected by heat stress can experience anything from heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and the most serious of all heat stress, heat stroke.

Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, occurs in hot, humid environments where sweat can't easily evaporate from the skin. The unevaporated sweat causes a rash which in some cases causes severe pain.

Heat cramps, another type of heat related illness, results in painful muscle spasms from the loss of salt and electrolytes due to excessive sweating. Heat cramps occur when large volumes of water are consumed without adequate salt replacement. Heat cramps tend to affect the stomach, the arms, and legs the most.

Heat exhaustion is a state brought on by the loss of fluids lost during excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion occurs when the heart and vascular system do not respond properly to high temperatures, and the mechanisms our body uses to cool itself – vasodilation and sweating – fail. Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of the water and salt, usually through excessive sweating.

Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency which could result in death if a victim is not attended to immediately. It is the most serious heat-related illness that occurs when the body's core temperature gets too high, and the body is no longer able to control its temperature and cool itself. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.

There are so many factors involved beyond environmental temperature that increases a person’s risk of a heat stress-related illness. These can include:

  • Acclimation
  • Air movement
  • Humidity
  • PPE
  • Working in direct sunlight vs. shade
  • Personal health
  • Medications
  • Age
  • Length of exposure
  • Workload

Paying close attention to the signs and symptoms of heat stress in yourself and others is crucial to a successful response and recovery. If you or a coworker fall victim to heat stress, take action immediately!

Workers with heat cramps should drink water and have a snack and/or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement liquid (e.g., sports drinks) every 15 to 20 minutes. Get medical help if the worker has heart problems, is on a low sodium diet, or if cramps do not subside within one hour.

Treat a worker suffering from heat exhaustion by taking the worker to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and treatment. If medical care is unavailable, call 911. Someone should stay with worker until help arrives. Remove the affected worker from the hot area and give him/her liquids to drink. Removing an unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks will help cool the victim down. You can also cool the worker with cold compresses or have the worker wash head, face, and neck with cold water.

If someone is suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately. Be sure someone stays with the victim until emergency help arrives. Move the worker to a shaded, cool area and remove any outer clothing. Circulate the air around the worker to speed cooling if possible. Placing cold, wet cloths or ice on the victim’s forehead, neck, armpits, or groin area will help in cooling the victim down. If ice or ice packs are not available, soak the victim’s clothing with cool water.

It’s understandable that sometimes we need to do heavy duty work in hot environments. Heat stress doesn’t have to post a big threat in this case. Prevention is key when it comes to heat stress and related illnesses. Consider implementing a work/rest schedule for strenuous work in high-risk heat stress conditions. There is no OSHA permissible exposure limit for heat, however, the American Conference of Governing Industrial Hygienists suggests a work/rest schedule like this:

If that’s not feasible, include frequent short breaks in your workday. Stop and hydrate regularly. Hydrating with an electrolyte drink is super important in preventing heat stress. Our body loses so much of its electrolytes when we sweat so we want to make sure we are continuously replenishing them.

Get acclimatized! It takes approximately 7 to 14 days for our bodies to adapt to our environment. That includes our activity level in those environmental conditions. Heat related illnesses are more likely to occur if our bodies haven’t had the time to adjust to working in heat. To help prepare your body for working in high heat environments, plan out your day. Do your most strenuous tasks during the coolest hours of the day and your lightest tasks during the hottest. After you get acclimatized to this schedule and workload, you can start to increase the intensity to your expected or desired workload. It is important to note that you will need to start the acclimatization process over after any break. This includes weekends off, leisurely vacation, or extended illness.

The heat index is a screening tool that uses temperature and relative humidity to calculate an adjusted temperature, representing how the conditions feel more accurately than just the ambient temperature. Supervisors should apply this critical tool to their work schedules and workloads to protect workers from potential heat stress.

Working in hot environments doesn’t have to be dangerous if the right precautions are taken. Look out for your coworkers by understanding the signs and symptoms of heat stress and take action immediately. Work smart. Stay safe.

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