With all the record high temps parts of the country has this summer, it’s time to review how hot conditions put your body under a lot of stress. Physical activity stresses the body even more. When heat is combined with physical activity, loss of fluids, fatigue, and other conditions can lead to a number of heat-related illnesses and injuries. Death is even possible. This week’s blog discusses ways to prevent heat stress and how to recognize the symptoms of heat-stress conditions.
Warm weather increases the number of heat-stress injuries and illnesses, but Heat stress can occur any time the surrounding temperature is elevated. Even if the weather is cool, you may work in warm areas, indoors or out.
The main factors that are involved in causing heat stress include:
- temperature & humidity
- movement of air & radiant temperature of the surroundings
- clothing & physical activity
Adjusting to these factors and/or controlling them may reduce the chance of heat stress. Your body can adjust to working in a warm environment through a process known as “acclimatization”. Check with your company’s safety people for the exact way to properly acclimatize yourself. Keep in mind, though, even if you’re already acclimatized, conditions can change which stress your body even more. Bright sunshine, high humidity, and sources of heat in the workplace can affect your body’s ability to cool itself. If conditions change, make sure you re-acclimate yourself to the new conditions.
Engineering controls implemented to reduce the possibility of heat stress include:
- control the heat source through use of insulation and reflective barriers
- exhaust hot air or steam away from the work area
- use of air-conditioning & use of air-conditioned rest areas
- use of fans to circulate the air
Administrative controls to prevent heat stress injuries include:
- increase frequency and duration of rest breaks
- schedule tasks to avoid physical activity during the hottest parts of the day
- provide cool water and encourage consumption
- use additional jobsite workers or slow the pace of the work
- review the signs and symptoms of heat stress with workforce
There are a number of types of heat stress injuries. Some are annoying but not very serious. Others can quickly lead to life-threatening situations. Knowing what to look out for is important. This is especially true because the more serious heat stress conditions cause the victim to become disoriented and unaware of his/her condition. People who are overweight, physically unfit, suffer from heart conditions, drink too much alcohol or are not acclimated to the temperature are at greater risk of heat stress and should seek and follow medical advice. The major heat stress injuries and illnesses are described here:
Heat Rash is caused by a hot, humid environment and plugged sweat glands. It is a bumpy red rash which itches severely. It is not life-threatening but is very annoying.
Heat Cramps are painful muscle cramps caused by a loss of body salt through excessive sweating. To help prevent heat cramps, drink plenty of non-alcoholic, caffeine-free fluids while working in a hot environment.
Heat Syncope (pronounced “sin-co-pay”) is sudden fainting caused by a reduced blood flow to the head. The victim’s skin will be cool and moist and his/her pulse will be weak. Immediate medical attention is needed in the event of syncope.
Heat Exhaustion results from inadequate salt and water intake and is a sign the body’s cooling system is not working properly. The victim will sweat heavily, their skin will be cool and moist and their pulse weak. They will seem tired, confused, clumsy, irritable or upset. They may breathe rapidly, even pant, and their vision may be blurred. The victim may strongly argue that they are okay even with these obvious symptoms. If you suspect heat exhaustion, don’t let the victim talk you out of seeking immediate medical attention. The heat exhaustion will affect their ability to exercise good judgment. Until medical help arrives, try to cool the victim and offer sips of cool water as long as the victim is conscious. Immediate medical attention is required. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke.
Heat Stroke is the deadliest of all heat stress conditions. It occurs when the body’s cooling mechanism has shut down after extreme loss of salt and fluids. Here, the body temperature will rise, the victim’s skin will be hot, red, and dry. Their pulse is fast, and they may complain of headache or dizziness. They will probably be weak, confused, and upset. Later stages of heat stroke cause a loss of consciousness and may lead to convulsions. In the event of heat stroke, seek immediate medical attention. Until help arrives, try to cool the victim and offer sips of cool water if the victim is conscious.
Recognizing the symptoms of heat stress is very important, particularly since the victim may not realize what is happening. If you work alone in a hot environment, develop a “buddy system” so someone will check in on you periodically to look for signs of heat stress.
Preventing heat stress is a matter of controlling the factors that cause it. Use the precautions mentioned in this article, and don’t hesitate to seek assistance if you suspect heat stress. Your good health depends on it!