Injuries and Illness

Heat Stress: Employers Sweating It Out

As summer heat raises the temperature in many workplaces, employers and workers alike need to know the threats heat can pose, and what to do if heat-related illness strikes.

It’s finally June. And all across the nation, you can almost hear the sighs of relief that, at last, the cold of winter and the damp rain of early spring are finally gone.  Welcome to the warmth of summer.

The problem is that the “warmth” of summer can be a little too warm for comfort. In fact, it can be deadly.

OSHA demands that you protect workers from heat stress. Learn what’s needed and how to prevent this serious summer problem from a top NIOSH official at BLR’s June 23 audio conference, Heat Stress at Work: How to Keep Your Employees Safe, Healthy and Productive. Can’t attend? Pre-order the CD. Satisfaction assured either way. Click for details.

Some 4,000 Americans die each year from heatstroke, and many more are made ill from heat-related illnesses. Many of these incidents occur as employees work on jobs that flourish in warm weather, such as construction, roofing, landscaping, or other maintenance chores. All of which makes it vital for both safety professionals and those who might be affected by heat issues to understand the danger and know how to recognize and react to it.

As explained by James D. MacDonald on the website, heat illnesses come in three varieties:

Heat Cramps.  When hard work (or extreme physical exercise) is done in a hot environment (and that can include an overheated workplace or gym), the body’s natural balance is thrown off kilter. Excessive sweating dehydrates the body, and precious electrolytes evaporate with it.

Before long, the large muscles aren’t getting the organic chemicals they need to function. They seize up, like a car engine starved of oil, usually in the legs and stomach area first. Anyone who has suffered these cramps knows that there’s no negotiating with the pain. You stop what you’re doing right now! That’s as it should be, says MacDonald. Cramps, he says, “are nature’s way of telling you to stop exercising [or working], when it’s that hot out.”

Heat Exhaustion. Also known as heat prostration and heat collapse, the causes are the same as those that cause cramping, but the symptoms are different. You’ll feel dizzy, weak, headache-y, and perhaps nauseous, but paradoxically, your skin will feel cold and clammy. Body temperature will be about normal, however.

Attend BLR’s June 23, 90-minute audio conference, Heat Stress at Work: How to Keep Your Employees Safe, Healthy and Productive. Can’t attend? Pre-order the CD. Satisfaction assured either way. Click for details.

Heat exhaustion can occur, says MacDonald, even when in mild temperatures if you’re overdressed for conditions, as multiple layers of clothing inhibit natural heat loss through sweating. Solution: Remove some clothing when you’re active.

Heatstroke: “This is the one that kills kids locked in cars on sunny days … and old folks in poorly ventilated apartments during heat waves,” says MacDonald. But “it also kills healthy 30-year-old guys working in a humid warehouse.”

The difference from the milder maladies is that the heat overload is so overwhelming that the body’s temperature controls are totally disrupted. The big marker is extreme body temperature of 105 degrees or higher. “This is a medical emergency,” warns MacDonald. “You have to act right now.”

What actions need to be taken should these temperature-related threats appear?

We’ll discuss them in tomorrow’s Advisor, and just as important, we’ll also review what employers can do to prevent heat stress from happening to their workers in the first place.


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