Heat related illness often does not receive as much attention as other workplace hazards and is often under reported.
A high profile case of heat stroke was that of Korey Stringer, a 27-year-old member of the Minnesota Vikings football team. On Aug. 1, 2001, he collapsed after two and a half hours of practice in 90 degree heat. At the hospital, his core body temperature was recorded at 108 degrees. He died shortly thereafter of major organ failure. Many were shocked at how sudden and serious the consequences of heat exposure can be, but his tragic story brought to light a serious workplace hazard that concerns thousands of workers every year.
According to OSHA, the combination of heat and humidity can be a serious health threat during summer months.
Here are several precautions to take:
- Drink small amounts of water frequently. When working in the heat, you should drink 5 to 7 ounces of water every half hour.
- Wear light colored, loose fitting, breathable clothing – cotton is good.
- Take frequent short breaks in cool, shaded areas.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
- Work in the shade whenever possible.
- Find out from your health provider if your medications will make you more susceptible to heat illness.
- Know that personal protective equipment such as respirators or coveralls can increase heat stress.
There are four kinds of heat-related disorders varying in severity. They include:
Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments. Heat rash is caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. This usually appears on the neck and upper chest. The best treatment for heat rash is to provide a cooler, less humid work environment.
Heat cramps are muscle pains usually caused by physical labor. Heat cramps are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Workers with heat cramps should replace fluid loss by drinking water or sports drinks every 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat exhaustion signs and symptoms include: headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating and a body temperature greater than 100.4 degrees. Workers with heat exhaustion should be removed from the hot area and given liquids to drink. Remove unnecessary clothing including shoes and socks. Cool the worker with cold compresses to the head, neck and face. Encourage frequent sips of cool water. Workers with signs or symptoms of heat exhaustion should be taken to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and treatment. Stay with the worker until help arrives. If symptoms worsen, call 911 and get help immediately.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related health problem. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature regulating system fails and body temperature rises to critical levels (greater than 104 degrees). This is a medical emergency that may result in death. The signs of heat stroke are confusion, loss of consciousness and seizures. Workers experiencing heat stroke have a very high body temperature and may stop sweating. If a worker shows signs of possible heat stroke, get medical help immediately and call 911. Until medical help arrives, move the worker to a shady, cool area and remove as much clothing as possible. Wet the worker with cool water and circulate the air to speed cooling. Place cold wet cloths, wet towels or ice all over the body or soak the worker’s clothing with cold water.
California became the first state to adopt heat illness prevention regulations. These regulations were in response to a particularly tragic summer in 2005 where 13 workers died from heat-related illness in that state. The regulations require that outdoor employees have access to one quart of water per hour for the entire shift, that employees have the right to take a break in the shade for at least five minutes when they feel they need one, and that employers receive special training. Fines of up to $25,000 per violation may be assessed on employers.
All employees should be made aware of the signs of heat-related health problems. I would also recommend making water and drinking cups available to workers, especially employees who perform lawn and termite work.
The author is the loss control manager at Capital Risk Underwriters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.