Texans might not be strangers to intense summer heat, but when it comes to working outside in your school district or community college, there are many heat-related risks to consider. With frequent construction, road work, and other outdoor activities happening, make sure you understand the risks of heat-related injuries and do all you can to keep employees safe in the summer sun.
Extended exposure to high temperatures can cause heat stress, a condition that can lead to several other illnesses. According to Princeton University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, 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:
- Heatstroke (potentially fatal)
Several factors can increase heat stress risk, which include:
- Age and weight
- Diet, including alcohol consumption
- Hydration level
- Amount of rest
- Strenuous job activity
Who is at risk?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), adults over the age of 65 are most susceptible to heat-related illnesses. But that does not mean that younger people are safe. Rather, anyone can suffer from heat stress if they don’t take appropriate preventative measures.
Your risk of heat stress greatly depends on your environment. Working outdoors in Texas often comes with exposure to intense sun, high humidity, hot air, and temperatures over 100 degrees, all of which are prime conditions for heat-related illnesses.
Even if your employees are primarily working indoors, they can still be at risk. Any source of extreme heat can potentially be hazardous, such as working inside a hot school kitchen, lab, or any room with heat-generating equipment or lack of ventilation. If these environments are not properly cooled or ventilated, the heat inside them can become stifling and even dangerous.
Symptoms of heat-related illnesses
Common symptoms of heat-related illness include thirst, sweating, and exhaustion. While these might be common sensations for anyone who has spent some time in the summer sun, it is important to keep track of them since they can directly lead to much bigger problems. If left untreated, such symptoms can develop into dangerous or even fatal conditions such as heatstroke. That is why it is important to constantly monitor these signs in yourself and others and treat them appropriately.
Warning signs and treatment for serious conditions
In addition to the common symptoms listed above, there are several warning signs to consider for more severe conditions like heat cramps, heat syncope, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke.
Heat cramps occur when hard physical work is being done in a heated environment.
Symptoms: painful, involuntary spasms
- Stop 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 include dehydration and lack of acclimatization.
Symptoms: Lightheaded 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 an air-conditioned place.
- Drink plenty of water or other cold beverages.
- A cool shower or bath will help to lower elevated body temperatures.
Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature rises rapidly, and the sweating mechanism fails. It 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:
- Call 911 and notify a supervisor
- Move to a cool, shaded area or air-conditioned place
- Fan yourself or have someone fan you and soak garments with water or shower them to cool their temperature
Acclimatization and assessment
Acclimatization and assessment are two important keys to preventing heat stress. Acclimatization means exposing employees to heat situations gradually, based on their experience with work in similar heated environments. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends increasing employees' heat exposure over seven to 14 days. This allows employees to adapt to the heated environment, and their bodies will work more efficiently to cool themselves.
An assessment is a process of investigating several factors, such as environment, workload, and clothing, to determine the level of heat hazard present in your workplace. Conducting an assessment can help determine which heat stress variables you can control. In general, a handful of procedures can go a long way towards protecting your employees from excessive heat exposure, such as:
- Schedule hot jobs during the cooler morning or evening times of the day
- Schedule routine maintenance during the fall or winter only
- Reduce physical exertion in hot environments by having your employees use less intense power tools
- Provide resources for quick hydration and rapid cool down
- Offer quick transportation to a medical facility for severe cases of heat stress
Tips to remember
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.
You can mitigate the most severe risks of heat stress and related injuries by following a few simple tips:
- 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.
- Ensure that employee clothing is appropriate for their job tasks. Loose, lightweight clothing (cotton) allows sweat to evaporate, light-colored clothing absorbs less heat than dark colors, and a lightweight hat with a good brim will shield the sun during outdoor activities.
- Education and engineering controls can make a difference. Implement the necessary practices that will keep staff safe from the wide range of illnesses and injuries that can occur. Even hand sweat can cause a slip of the hand that may lead to injury.
The TASB Risk Management Fund encourages members who have questions about protecting employees from heat stress and other hazards to contact your risk solutions consultant.