Working in hot weather can be both difficult and risky for all involved. However, understanding these risks can make all the difference for job-site workers exposed to hazardous temperatures. Pat Urtecho, Senior Risk Management Consultant at Builders Mutual, offers these tips to help educate you and your workers on the prevention of heat stress. By understanding the differences in symptoms and using a few basic practices, workers can maintain their health and safety while working in the heat.

Types of heat-related illness

Each year in the US, hot weather causes roughly 30 fatalities and 4,000 heat-related illnesses, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. These illnesses differ in symptoms and treatments. Understanding the differences is the first preventative step to take.

Heat Stroke is one of the most serious problems for workers in high temperatures, because the body loses its ability to regulate and cool. When heat stroke occurs, the individual stops sweating and no longer has evaporating sweat to help with cooling. Symptoms include an increase in body temperature; mental confusion; dry, red, and blotchy skin; and loss of consciousness. Medical help should be sought immediately, and the individual should be moved to a cool area. Fanning the victim and soaking their clothing with cool water can slow the effect until help arrives. If untreated, heat stroke can be fatal.

Heat Exhaustion puts workers at higher risk for on-site accidents and can occur when a worker becomes dehydrated. This can be the result of failing to drink enough fluids to remain hydrated, or developing an inability to maintain salt levels, or both. Typically, victims will continue to sweat as well as to experience symptoms such as nausea, pupil dilation, extreme weakness, and pale complexion. Workers experiencing these symptoms should be allowed to rest in a cool place while consuming plenty of water.

Heat Cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur when workers fail to maintain sodium levels. These cramps occur both during and after work hours, so awareness of their cause and treatment can allow workers to easily relieve this pain. Best practices for heat cramps include consumption of carbohydrate-electrolyte beverages, such as sports drinks.

Steps for preventing heat-related illnesses

Once employers and employees understand the types of heat-related illnesses and their symptoms, they can better identify preventative actions. These five basic tasks and tools can provide knowledge of heat stress and treatment of heat-related illness.

1. Hydration is vital to maintaining health and preventing heat-related illness. Drinking water frequently and monitoring hydration should occur at all times. Keeping water bottles and sports drinks handy is the best way to ensure workers are always hydrated as they work at high temperatures. Check out this Fact vs. Fiction blog post to learn more about staying hydrated while working.

2. Keep Your Workers Cool on the job-site when they are wearing and using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Best practices in high heat include wearing lightweight and light-colored clothing, as dark colors absorb sunlight and increase heat. Another best practice is wearing vests containing gel or ice packs. Hard hats with brims that cover 360 degrees can protect the face and neck from heavy exposure to sun, and cool packs placed in hard hats can help keep body temperature down. Cooling towels, such as those made by frogg toggs®, can cool skin quickly and remain cool for long periods of time while employees are working.

3. Administrative Controls are simple yet effective tools for preventing heat-related illnesses and maintaining a safe work environment. OSHA has a three-pronged approach to handling the hazard of high temperatures: remove the individuals from the hazard, separate them from the hazard with a barrier, or provide PPE when workers are directly exposed to the hazard.

Some useful administrative controls include the adjustment of work schedules to limit the time workers are exposed to peak sunlight and temperatures. During these peak times, workers can use designated “cool zones” that contain misting fans. All employees should have basic first aid knowledge and risk awareness training to help them understand and remain on high alert for heat-related hazards on the job-site.

4. First Aid Knowledge and understanding can allow workers to act quickly while waiting on first responders in the event of a heat-related situation on the job-site. Simple tasks, starting with taking quick action, can save the life of a victim of heat stroke or slow the effects of other heat-related illnesses. If the victim’s symptoms include dizziness or lightheadedness, lay the victim on their back and raise their legs six inches to eight inches. If symptoms include nausea or upset stomach, lay the victim on their side. Clothing should be loosened or removed, and the victim should consume cool water unless experiencing nausea or losing consciousness. Making the effort to cool the person’s body temperature can be highly effective. This can be achieved by fanning and spraying with a cool mist of water or applying a wet cloth or ice to the person’s skin. If these attempts do not stabilize the victim within a few minutes, call 911 immediately.

5. OSHA provides a Heat Safety Tool Mobile App that provides an hourly heat index and other helpful information. Given the specific heat index at the time, the app will list relevant precautions. Additionally, it will list signs and symptoms of heat illness. This is an extremely useful tool that provides a readily available reference and treatment plan when workers may need information or assistance.  Other heat-related OSHA resources can be found here.

Risk Factors for heat-related illness include but are not limited to previous heat-related illnesses, PPE adding to physical stress while a worker is on the job-site, and certain medications. Workers using medications should consult their physicians or pharmacists regarding whether the medications could affect them adversely during high temperatures on the job-site. By following these five guidelines and familiarizing themselves with symptoms of heat-related illnesses, employers and employees can take the proper steps toward heat stress prevention. This will provide a safer summer work environment.

Copy reviewed 6.2021.