Heat stress is a condition that can cause several types of heat related illnesses. Risks for these illnesses are high when environmental heat factors combine with the body’s failure to regulate its internal core temperature. The body combats heat with increased breathing, sweating, and changes in blood flow.
Heat stress injuries can include:
- Heat stroke (can be fatal)
Factors that can increase heat stress risk:
- Age & weight
- Diet, including alcohol consumption
- Hydration level
- Amount of rest
- Strenuous job activity
Environments significantly contribute to heat stress. Working outside in Texas means sun exposure, hot air, high humidity, and temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees. However, do not overlook indoor environments, such as kitchens or areas that house heat-producing machinery. Increased ventilation and cooling fans should be used in these areas to keep the heat indoors from becoming overwhelming. Employees who work in any of these conditions may be at a higher risk for heat stress.
Acclimatization and assessment are important keys to prevention. Acclimatization means employees should be exposed to heat situations gradually, based on the employee’s prior experience with work in similar heated environments. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends increasing an employee’s heat exposure time by no more than 20% each day. This allows employees to adapt to the heated environment, and their bodies will work more efficiently to cool themselves.
An assessment process can help determine which heat stress variables you can control. For example, can you schedule hot jobs during the cooler parts of the day? Is it possible to schedule routine maintenance during fall or winter seasons? Are there power tools to reduce physical exertion? Do you have provisions available for rapid cool down and quick hydration? Is transportation available to take severe cases of heat stress to a medical facility?
Tools, treatment, and training are all factors that can help conquer the Texas summer months and keep employees cool. Refer to a heat index to identify dangerous conditions – keep a close watch on indoor and outdoor temperatures. Train staff to recognize the warning signs and treatment of a heat related illness.
Ensure employee clothing is appropriate for their job tasks:
- Loose, lightweight clothing (cotton) allows sweat to evaporate.
- Light colors absorbs less heat than dark colors.
- During outdoor activities, a lightweight hat with a good brim will shield the sun.
Tips to remember
Water breaks are essential. Keep cool water available nearby. Water should be consumed about every 15-20 minutes. Applying water to clothing is also a good way to cool down body temperatures.
Awareness is vital. Educate all staff to recognize the symptoms of heat stress illnesses, what actions to take, and know what symptoms merit professional medical attention.
Ventilation and cooling fans should be used whenever possible for employees that work indoors but are exposed to radiating heat from equipment, machinery, and appliances.
Education and engineering controls can make a difference. Implement the necessary practices that will keep staff safe from the wide range of illness and injuries that can occur. Even hand sweat can cause a slip of the hand that may lead to injury.
Warning signs and treatment
Heat cramps occur when hard physical work is being done in a heated environment.
Symptoms: painful, involuntary spasms
- Discontinue activity and take a break in a cool place.
- Rehydrate with a sports drink or clear juice.
- Do not return immediately to the same strenuous activity, as it may lead to heat exhaustion or stroke.
Heat syncope occurs with prolonged standing or sudden rising from a lower position, other factors may be dehydration and lack of acclimatization.
Symptoms: Light headed feeling, dizziness, and fainting
What to do:
- Sit or lie down in a cool place when symptoms occur.
- Rehydrate slowly with water, clear juice, or a sports drink.
Heat exhaustion occurs with excessive loss of water and salt due to sweating.
Symptoms: Heavy sweating, clammy skin, headache, nausea, extreme fatigue, dizziness, confusion, flushed complexion, cramps, and shallow breathing
What to do:
- Rest in a cool shaded area or in an air-conditioned place.
- Drink plenty of water or other cold beverages.
- A cool shower or bath will help to lower elevated body temperatures.
Heat stroke occurs when the body temperature rises rapidly and the sweating mechanism fails. Heat strokes can cause permanent disability or death.
Symptoms: Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating, chills, throbbing head pain, elevated body temperature, slurred speech, confusion, dizziness, and hallucinations
What to do:
If you are interested in viewing a recorded webinar about preventing heat-related illnesses led by TASB Risk Solutions Consultant Charles Hueter in May 2018, contact TASB Member Solutions.
Reference sites for further information:
Editor's note: This article was originally published in July 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.