“Heat stress” is a term that encompasses many different physical reactions that result from a body’s attempt to regulate its temperature in response to the environment. These physical reactions range from uncomfortable to fatal, and tend to exacerbate other workplace risks.
“All of these types of issues can help create safety hazards for both the worker and their co-workers.”
Common symptoms of heat stress include heat rash due to sweating and clogged pores, heat cramps due to the loss of electrolytes from sweat, and heat exhaustion . These issues might not seem particularly threatening on the surface. However, it often lead to worker irritability, low morale, absenteeism and shortcuts in procedures.
On the other end of the spectrum, heat stroke is a true medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to regulate its temperature, and the condition can be fatal.
Certain environmental, physical and operational variables affect the ease with which OSH professionals can address heat-related hazards.
“The primary concern is to maintain the body’s core temperature at or near the normal level,” which is approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 degrees Celsius.
The risk factors inhibiting this objective include:
- The temperature of the work site
- The environment’s relative humidity
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) that interferes with the body’s ability to sweat effectively
- An employee’s workload (the body produces heat during muscular exertion)
- An employee’s age, drug use, body weight, cardiovascular fitness, underlying health problems and existing burns (these may damage or destroy sweat glands)
- A lack of worker and supervisor training on heat stress
Workers should also learn to watch for the following signs of heat stress:
- Sudden, severe nausea or headaches
- Increased incidents or absenteeism
- Chronic fatigue
- A lack of alertness
“Employers must use measurements, along with the observation of workers and their professional judgment, to help ensure workers remain safe.”
Methods for Prevention
Important daily tasks for heat stress prevention might include:
- Evaluating work site conditions and assessing heat risks
- Ensuring that water is available and water coolers are sanitary
- Actively encouraging workers to take regular drinks of water
- Scheduling hot or physically demanding jobs for the coolest parts of the day
- Implementing mandatory work/rest schedules
- Creating a “buddy system” for workers to watch out for each other
- Installing shade canopies
- Providing air-conditioned trailers or break rooms for spot cooling
- Utilizing vented, full-brim hard hats and other types of warm-weather PPE