Climate Change: How Technology Can Help Predict and Prevent Heat-Related Injury & Illness
By: Elizabeth Foster, Contributor
The World Health Organization estimates that heat exposure will directly lead to 38,000 unnecessary deaths during the 2030s and more than 100,000 additional deaths per year in the 2050s.i Each year, we are experiencing an escalation of extreme weather.
This past summer brought record-breaking heatwaves across the globe. July is notably the hottest month of the year, and July 2021 carries the distinction of being history’s hottest recorded month.ii The record-breaking heat in the Western U.S. and Canada sparked catastrophic wildfires and had humans battling the growing flames which then left land desolate. Due to the ongoing climate crisis, we can expect continuing extreme heatwaves of increasing magnitude that will impact essential workers due to high heat exposure.
Core Body Temperature
The human brain will maintain a core body temperature (CBT) within 1 or 2 degrees of 98.6F (37C). Body temperature control is vital, because many of the body’s essential processes require a temperature within a particular range. iii When faced with rising temperatures, the body utilizes two critical functions to cool down. The person will begin to sweat, and the evaporation of that sweat will cause the body to start the cool down process. Also, the body will send blood to the extremities to allow heat to escape.
If the body fails to cool itself, CBT will continue to rise. An increasing CBT puts you at risk for heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. While all three conditions can be detrimental and lead to heat illness, they can also lead to heatstroke, which can be life-threatening. Another symptom of rising CBT is diminished work capacity, as the worker begins to feel discomfort and fatigue. Errors will start to occur, due to reduced power in judgment and perception, and the body can exhaust and collapse. iv
Fortunately, tech companies are developing tools using technology to prevent such heat-related occurrences, improving worker health and productivity.
Smart PPE: Wearable Technology
Some companies, such as Kenzen, provide smart PPE by using proprietary algorithms and wearable technology to bring actionable insights to the worker, supervisor and corporate EHS decision-makers. A wearable device worn on a worker’s upper arm contains sensors that monitor the individual’s physiological responses to heat in real-time. Kenzen incorporates additional information, such as the individual’s height, weight, age, pre-existing conditions, history of heat injury or illness, and environmental factors (humidity and temperature) to track heat risks for the worker. This information is used to calculate an individual’s heat susceptibility.
Heat susceptibility is how sensitive an individual is to heat and therefore more at risk for a heat-related injury or illness. Workers can be classified into low, moderate or high heat-risk. Heat susceptibility allows managers and safety personnel to identify who to watch closely on scorching hot days and better adjust workloads for those at varying risk levels.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Drinking enough fluids helps to combat potential heat-related illness on hot, humid days by replenishing the body’s fluids lost through sweating and lowering CBT. Some modern monitors have a sweat rate monitoring feature that calculates and predicts the amount of sweat loss an individual will have on a given day. Through an analytics dashboard, management can see how much water their teams will need each day and how much water each person needs to drink per hour based on their sweat rate. This sweat rate feature provides critical data. It enables management to bring an adequate amount of water to worksites and empowers them to structure worker breaks and encourage proper hydration—with data to back their decisions.
Heat-monitoring technology comes at a valuable time, as the Biden administration is calling on OSHA to protect workers against heat-related injury and illness. On September 20, OSHA announced the implementation of an enforcement initiative addressing heat-related hazards, the development of a heat inspections program and an impending workplace heat standard. v
Climate change makes it difficult to predict what the future holds for our environment. One thing that we can expect is extreme weather to continue, which brings extreme heat. Now that enforceable safety regulations are on the way for heat-related work hazards, technology will play a greater role in managing to the standards and, ultimately, keeping employees safe and productive as conditions change around them.