Solutions to Heat Stress for Workplace Safety
By: Jane Marsh, Contributor
As average temperatures rise throughout the globe due to climate change, workplace safety is taking precedence. Employees who work in buildings without adequate ventilation or air conditioning; work outside in higher temperatures; or work in hot conditions are at a higher risk for heat-related illness.
Employers are required to ensure their employees are safe. Although heat stress is preventable, thousands of employees still become sick because of working under extreme heat. OSHA estimates that up to 70% of the outdoor fatalities due to heat-related illness occur within the first few days of someone working outside for the first time.
There are many solutions to heat stress for workplace safety, but employers may not be aware of how to prevent it. Safety, of course, is of the utmost importance in any workplace. By knowing what heat-related illnesses are, their signs and how to avoid them, you can provide a safe and effective environment for your employees.
What Is Heat Stress?
To offer solutions for your company to avoid heat stress, you need to know what heat stress and other heat-related illnesses are. Heat stress can manifest itself in many ways, including:
- Heat stroke: Of all heat-related illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control states this is the most severe. The body can no longer control its internal temperature, meaning the person cannot sweat or cool down in any way. It can be fatal or cause disability.
- Heat rash: Just like other rashes, heat rash is a skin irritation. It’s caused by excessive sweating, especially in hot weather.
- Heat cramps: If someone is working strenuously in warm temperatures, their body may be deprived of salt from sweating. Low salt levels in the body can cause painful cramping.
- Heat exhaustion: As the body attempts to cool down, it can respond with excessive sweating due to a loss of salt and water content.
- Heat syncope: Heat syncope is when someone faints or gets extremely dizzy from a long period of standing or working in the heat. This could also be a result of dehydration.
- Rhabdomyolysis: This condition results from heat stress and physical activity, which breaks down and kills muscle. The muscle then releases proteins which can cause heart issues and seizures.
These heat stress conditions can lead to more severe health concerns, if not cared for as soon as the symptoms are recognized. Although the various forms of heat stress have differing symptoms, they can range from thirst, sweating or confusion to seizures, extreme muscle pain or even fatality—if treatment isn’t available immediately.
If you think an employee or coworker is experiencing heat stress, call 911 as soon as possible. In the meantime, get the person to a place with shade, air conditioning or a low-humidity location; remove their outer clothing; and provide them with water or an ice pack.
Solutions to Heat Stress
You can avoid heat stress by taking precautions for your workplace and your workers.
1. Allow for Acclimatization
New employees may not be used to working in varying climates, especially the heat. On average, it takes a person a few weeks to acclimate to the weather. During this time, do not give them a heavy or full workload.
2. Provide Fruit and Cold Beverages
Make water and other cold beverages with electrolytes available at all times during the workday to prevent dehydration. In addition, providing fruits, such as apples or bananas, can help replenish electrolytes.
3. Establish a Shaded or Air-Conditioned Location
If a worker notices they are experiencing signs of heat stress, remind them to go to an established shaded area or indoors where there is air conditioning. This will help their body cool down.
4. Update Energy Efficiency in the Workplace
Not all heat stress occurs while working outside. Inefficient buildings can get hot and humid and, without proper ventilation, your workplace can reach temperatures similar to those outside.
Window replacements and a more energy-efficient design can provide a cooler space to work even if you don’t have full-building air conditioning.
5. Remind Employees to Wear Cool Clothing
Too many layers of clothing while working in hot weather can cause heat stress. Either provide them with safe, breathable clothing or remind them to wear it. Looser clothing allows the body to cool down quickly and efficiently.
6. Let Your Workers Rest
It’s better to allow your workers to take a break than risk them having heat stress. Heat stress can cause permanent impairment, so a short break is much better than the loss of an employee.
Keep Your Employees Cool and Safe in the Heat
Heat stress is a serious concern that can cause you to lose workers if it’s not treated. It can occur in any season of the year, too. Know the types, signs, symptoms, treatments and prevention to ensure every one of your employees is safe.
Jane Marsh covers topics in green technology and manufacturing. She also works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co.
[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Workplace Material Handling & Safety.]