In New England, we all track the weather, knowing full well if you don’t like the weather today, stick around and it will change. This past winter, we had a day of snow followed by 60+ degrees the next afternoon. This makes for a challenging work environment for the outdoor worker, supervisor, and business owner. Heat stress, always a heightened risk in summer, is a year-round concern even in the Northeast.
Heat stress is an illness caused by exposure to extreme heat or prolonged exposure to hot environments. Overexertion and overexposure can also bring on heat stress. It occurs when the body cannot shed excess heat and cannot cool itself to a healthy temperature, typically 37° C or 98.6° F.
The National Safety Council reports 162 people in the United States died from heat-related exposures in 2018 and 503 were hospitalized. A common cause of heat stress is exposure to the sun and warm environments. Alcohol, medications, drug use, poor physical condition, and lack of food can also contribute to heat stress.
In the workplace, high risk environments for heat stress range from kitchens, plating shops, and laundry sites to confined spaces like boiler rooms and crawl spaces. Certain jobs pose higher risks:
Welders, Police, Fire, and Utility Workers,
Landscapers, Roofers, and Builders
Kitchen Workers and Chefs
Professional Athletes and Food Vendors
Drowning In A Sea Of Blankets
Heat stress can lead to injuries, illness, and even death. Unchecked, it worsens to heatstroke and extreme exhaustion, a feeling described as “drowning in a sea of blankets, barely able to move,” according to a Mayo Clinic report.
Symptoms include lightheadedness, headache, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and nausea. Other common indicators are profuse sweating, confusion, thirst, pale skin, and fainting as well as cramps caused by low body salts. Self-care is vital when you experience early warning signs. Find a cool place, rest, elevate legs, and drink plenty of water or sports drinks. Loosen clothing and place a wet towel on your neck. If you don’t feel better in an hour, seek medical attention.
It takes up to three weeks for the average worker to acclimate to hot environments. The first steps in reducing heat stress risk are to avoid direct sunlight. If possible, wear a vented hat, and hydrate.
We advise employers to adjust work schedules to allow for regular breaks away from a heat source and to provide protective clothing. Gloves, eyewear, cooling vests, misting devices, and thermal boots to protect feet on hot pavement may also be appropriate. Many Fitbits and Smartwatches can alert people to early symptoms.
Don’t underestimate humidity. We have all heard it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, a direct reference to the Heat Index. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the heat index is a measure of how hot it feels when relative humidity is factored in along with actual air temperature. For example, the thermometer may read 96° F, but with relative humidity at 65 percent, it feels like 121° F.
A.I.M. Mutual’s injury prevention staff can help with any questions employers may have about heat stress risks. Additional resources including a Heat Safety app and worksite posters are available on the company’s website.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas Bochart, ASP, CWPC, Injury Prevention & Worksite Wellness Consultant, has worked for A.I.M. Mutual for 25 years. A professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, he has served in various roles in the Greater Boston chapter, including board member, president, and committee chair, since 1983. Tom holds a B.S. degree in Civil Engineering from Fairleigh Dickinson University and has previous safety experience in the construction, defense, and telecommunications fields. He has expertise in OSHA compliance, General Safety and Accident Prevention, Machine Guarding, Industrial Hygiene, Accident Investigation and Safety Training, and Ergonomics. He is an Associate Safety Professional and Certified Wellness Program Coordinator.