The summer months bring with them high temperatures, high humidity and a high potential for heat-related illness. Heat exhaustion includes a spectrum of conditions with minor symptoms, such as prickly heat or heat rash, and can progress to heat cramps and heat stroke — a life-threatening medical condition.
When a person works in a hot environment and sweating cannot dissipate enough heat, heat-related illness is bound to happen. The loss of about 1% of body water through sweating can be tolerated without serious effect. When sweat loss exceeds this amount, serious consequences of dehydration can arise. There are several symptoms that workers should be aware of when working in extreme heat:
- Profuse sweating
- Muscle cramps
- Reduced urination
- Nausea and/or vomiting
As dehydration increases from the loss of body water, lightheadedness and fainting can also occur. If any of these symptoms are present, it’s imperative that the worker take a break (out of the heat) and drink plenty of water or electrolyte replacement solutions. If nausea, vomiting or severe muscle cramps are present, the person should seek medical attention.
In the event of seizure or if the person is acting confused and disoriented, emergency medical services should be contacted immediately as this is likely heat stroke. It’s important to know the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke needs to be treated as a true medical emergency requiring immediate professional medical attention. If an employee has hot, dry skin or is unconscious, call 9-1-1. If not treated rapidly, heat stroke can lead to death.
There are several ways to avoid heat exhaustion:
- Taking frequent breaks in cooler areas
- Drinking an adequate amount of fluids
- Dressing in light-colored, lightweight clothing
- Slowing the pace of work
It’s crucial that both employers and employees are aware of the dangers related to working in high heat. Employers should have a heat stress prevention program in place and should be sure all employees are properly trained prior to working in high temperatures.
Ways to Protect Workers
- Learn the signs and symptoms of heat-induced illnesses and what to do in the event of an emergency.
- Develop a heat stress prevention program and provide training for all employees.
- Perform the heaviest work in the coolest part of the day.
- Slowly build up tolerance to the heat and the work activity (can take up to two weeks).
- Drink plenty of cool water (one small cup every 15 to 20 minutes).
- Take frequent short breaks in cool shaded areas. (Allow your body to cool down.)
- Avoid eating large meals before working in hot environments.
- Avoid caffeine and alcoholic beverages, which make the body lose water.
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