Mon. May 17th, 2021

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Health, Safety, Security and Environment

Heat Stress: Working Safely in the Heat

7 min read

Working in hot conditions can easily bring on heat-related illnesses if we aren’t proactive in preventing them. So it is important to understand that heat stress and heat-related illness can cause more than just discomfort. If it’s not treated early enough, it can lead to hospitalization or even death. This program provides an overview of how the body regulates heat and how to recognize the warning signs when these processes aren’t working. The viewer will learn to recognize and treat symptoms of various heat-related illnesses. Most importantly, the program offers advice on preventing symptoms from occurring and understanding how to work safely in the heat.

In the following article, you will know how the body responds to heat, acclimation, the symptoms and treatment methods for five heat-related illnesses, and the precautions to take to prevent heat-related illnesses.

How the body responds to heat

Inside your body, there are many different mechanisms to make sure that your internal temperature stays at or near 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Celsius. In extreme temperatures, your body has to work harder to heat or cool itself to stay comfortable.

When trying to stay cool in the heat, the first thing your body will do is send more blood towards the surface of the skin.

By increasing blood flow towards the surface, the body can cool the blood and then send it back inside, where it will help keep you cool internally. This is why your skin may look flushed when you’ve been working in high temperatures.

If the increased blood flow isn’t enough to keep you cool, your second line of defense is your sweat glands. As the perspiration evaporates from your skin, it cools your body. This is why a fan or a cool breeze on a hot day feels so good.

Sometimes these internal mechanisms may not be able to keep your body cool. Higher temperatures mixed with increased physical activity can make it hard for your body to cool itself efficiently; that’s when heat-related illnesses strike.

You might assume that heat-related illnesses only affect people who work outdoors, in direct sunlight, during hot summer months, but heat can be a problem in both indoor and outdoor work environments.

Below 91 degrees Fahrenheit or 32 degrees Celsius, most people can work comfortably and safely, but as the temperatures rise, it is important to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses in yourself and your coworkers.

Acclimation

Another way heat-related illnesses can sneak up on you is when you are new to working in hot environments or have taken a break for longer than four days.

Your body needs time to adjust to higher temperatures, especially when you are doing more strenuous work. Acclimation is your body’s process of learning how to properly cool itself in hotter than normal conditions.

By giving yourself time to acclimate to the heat, you’ll feel better and be able to work more productively. During the acclimation period, make sure you are paying close attention to the signs of heat-related illnesses, drinking plenty of water, and taking small breaks as needed.

Heat rash

Heat rash (or “prickly heat”) occurs when sweat begins to clog your sweat glands. This also limits your ability to sweat, making it harder for your body to cool itself, leaving you susceptible to more serious heat-related illnesses.

In most cases, all you need to do is take a break in a cool place and drink water to clear up a mild rash.

Heat cramps

Other heat-related illnesses can be confused with the effects of simply doing physical work for long periods of time.

Heat cramps are a result of extended heat exposure and profuse sweating. The loss of minerals, salt, and water through sweat can cause painful muscle spasms in your limbs and body.

Heat cramps are a warning sign that your body’s internal temperature is climbing and can signal that more serious problems are on the way if you aren’t paying attention.

To treat heat cramps, stop working and rest in a cool area. Drink juice or a sports drink to rehydrate and replenish the minerals and salt that your body needs.

Heat syncope

When sweating is not enough, the body directs blood flow to the skin to help the body cool itself. If your body is in overdrive, this can result in a lack of blood flowing to the brain, otherwise known as heat syncope.

Symptoms include headache, dizziness, and fainting. If ignored, heat syncope can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, so it’s important to treat it right away.

If you or someone you’re working with experienced symptoms of heat syncope, have them lie down in a cool place with their feet slightly elevated. Loosen clothing and fan the victim. Apply a cool compress to their forehead, if possible.

When the victim begins to feel better, have them drink small amounts of water, or a sports drink every five minutes or so until dizziness subsides. Just like heat rash, the best treatment is prevention.

Heat exhaustion

Some heat-related illnesses can be quite serious. Heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which is fatal if not treated. Like heat cramps, heat exhaustion is brought on by intense physical activity in hot conditions.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include intense sweating, blurred vision, rapid breathing, weak pulse, and moist cool skin.

Profuse sweating leads to a loss of minerals, water, and salt, and causes dehydration. Your body’s cooling systems go into overdrive and eventually burn out.

If someone is experiencing heat exhaustion symptoms, get the victim to a cool area where they can lie down. Soak the victim with water or dab them with a cool, damp cloth, then fan them until they’ve cooled down.

Encourage the victim to drink small amounts of water, around one glass every 15 minutes. It is also recommended that the victim visits an emergency room or urgent care clinic to get checked out.

Heatstroke

If more serious symptoms appear, like nausea and vomiting or loss of consciousness, call 911 immediately! These symptoms indicate that the person may be experiencing heatstroke.

Heatstroke occurs when body temperatures rise to near-fatal levels, temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees celsius. When your body cannot regulate its internal temperature, the organs will begin to shut down, which will lead to death if not treated.

If someone is beginning to experience heat stroke, immediate medical attention is required. While you wait for help to arrive, it is important to try to lower the victim’s body temperature.

Start by removing any unnecessary PPE and clothing. Then, lay the person on their side, away from the heat. Douse the victim with cool water, and fan them to lower their body temperature.

Use ice packs to help lower the body temperature by placing them behind the neck and under armpits. Stay with the victim until medical help arrives and do not give them aspirin or any anti-fever medications.

Even with treatment, heatstroke can cause permanent long-term health problems, like kidney, brain, and heart damage.

Prevention

Prevention is always the best way to deal with heat-related illnesses. Hydration is the most important part of preventing heat-related illnesses.

Make sure to pre-hydrate before work, by drinking about two glasses of water, about 16 oz. Or a half liter, before you begin working in a hot environment. Drink fluids throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Aim to drink one glass of water for every 20 minutes of work in hot conditions. Flavored water and sports drinks can count towards these totals.

Avoid coffee, caffeine, and alcohol as these have dehydrating effects and can make heat-related illnesses worse.

Sunburn can cause discomfort, lead to fluid loss and heat-related illnesses. Thirty minutes before going outside, put on a sunblock of spf 30 or higher. Re-apply every two hours or more often if you are sweating a lot.

Wear light-colored clothing made of breathable fabric. Moisture-wicking fabrics can provide additional help moving moisture away from the skin and help it evaporate, keeping you cool and dry.

Even though you can’t avoid wearing your PPE, dressing comfortably underneath will help you from overheating.

Try to avoid scheduling heavy work during the hottest parts of the day. Tasks that can’t be done in the shade should be done early in the day.

Pay attention to what your body tells you. Don’t push yourself too far and don’t try to keep up with coworkers just because they don’t seem bothered by the heat.

It’s important to take small breaks as needed. Get away from the heat and make sure to rehydrate.

Being physically fit is important to overall health, but it will also help your body acclimate to heat more quickly.

Some medications can have an adverse effect on your body. If you take any medications regularly, it is important to pay attention to the side effects. If you are on any medications, talk to your doctor to see if you can safely work in the heat.

Check-in with your coworkers throughout the day to look for signs or symptoms of heat-related illness.

Because heat-related illness can cause confusion and disorientation, someone experiencing a problem might not realize it or might not think they need help. It’s important to always look out for your coworkers. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you are going to be working in a hot environment, make sure you are paying attention to the signs of heat-related illness. If you notice any symptoms, stop working and tell your supervisor or a coworker right away. Don’t push past the breaking point, because it could cause permanent damage to your body or worse.

By using these preventative measures, and staying alert to the warning signs, you can continue to stay safe and productive when working in the heat.

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