Dehydration is usually associated with sunny outdoor environments and high heat. That's not wrong – those are certainly risk factors – but it's not a complete picture.

Dehydration is a year-round issue, and lots of very different workplaces and job sites put workers at risk of it.

In this article, we'll explain why that is and go over a few work environments that carry a surprisingly high dehydration risk.

Why Dehydration Occurs and How to Identify It

Dehydration happens when the body can't function optimally because it doesn’t have as much fluid as it needs.

It can happen through normal everyday activities. We lose fluid from breathing, sweating, urinating, and even through tears and saliva. If the lost fluid isn’t replaced, the body starts to become dehydrated. This can be exacerbated by fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive sweating or urinating.

There are, of course, signs that you can watch out for that indicate whether you (or your colleague) are experiencing dehydration.

Signs of mild to moderate dehydration include:

  • Thirst
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Infrequent urination
  • Moderate- to dark-yellow urine
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps

Signs of severe dehydration include:

  • Lack of urination or dark-yellow urine
  • Very dry skin
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting
  • Rapid heartbeat or breathing
  • Sunken eyes
  • Lack or energy
  • Confusion or irritability

(Learn more in Before Thirst: 6 Key Signs of Dehydration Workers Should Know - and Often Miss.)

Electrolyte Imbalance

Dehydration can also throw the body's electrolyte levels out of balance.

Electrolytes like sodium and potassium are critical for good health and physical performance, but can be dangerous when they are too low or too high in concentration.

Some of the symptoms that people associate with fluid loss, such as headaches, can actually be caused by electrolyte imbalance. In extreme cases, it can lead to seizures and irregular heart rhythms (learn more about Electrolytes: What They Are and Why They Matter for On-the-Job Hydration).

Working Conditions that Contribute to Dehydration

Workers in hot environments are usually on the lookout for signs of dehydration, but there are some other key work environments where dehydration is also a concern. Here, we’re going to outline them for you and offer some tips to help mitigate the risk.

Cold Environments

Most workers prepare for hazards like hypothermia and frostbite when working in colder environments. But few realize that dehydration could also take hold in these conditions.

Cold environments can contribute to dehydration for a few reasons:

  • We tend to go for longer periods without water, not realizing that breathing cold, dry air causes the body to lose a significant amount of fluid
  • Sweat turns into vapor quickly, removing it as a visual cue for us to take a drink
  • We feel about 40 percent less thirsty in cold environments, even though we need just as much water as we do in warmer ones

Remember that cold environments don’t just include outdoor work areas – indoor workers may be affected to. Workers who might be at risk include:

  • Construction workers
  • Fishing and agricultural workers
  • Emergency responders
  • Workers who spend a lot of time in walk-in fridges, freezers, and cold storage areas

How to Handle It

Employees should have warm liquids easily accessible throughout their shift and should drink them at regular intervals to replace lost body fluids.

Alcohol, caffeine, and carbonated drinks can make dehydration worse, so it’s best to avoid them.

Environments Requiring Heavy PPE

Workers who do jobs requiring heavy (or non-breathable) PPE must be extra cautious.

This is especially so for those who require full-body suits or hoods and respirators. Firefighters are a great example. Their PPE alone can weigh 45 pounds, and that doesn't even include their other equipment! Studies suggest that firefighters can lose water about five times faster than athletes in extreme conditions, due in part to the heavy, non-breathable protective gear they wear (for related reading, see What Athletic Research Teach Us: 5 Tips for Optimal Hydration on the Job).

So why is heavy PPE such a risk? Naturally, wearing heavy equipment causes the body to sweat more. And more perspiration results in fluid being lost at a quicker rate.

How to Handle It

Showing up to your shift properly hydrated is critical, so it’s recommended to drink about 16 ounces of water an hour beforehand.

During work, drink eight ounces every 15 minutes, even if you don’t feel thirsty; this will help replace the fluids you’re losing via perspiration due to the heavy PPE.

Continue to hydrate after you finish work (and remove that heavy gear), and consider adding electrolytes and carbohydrates if you’ve been working in heavy PPE for more than an hour.

Free Download: Hydration: The Underappreciated Safety and Productivity Measure Many Industrial Workplaces Miss


Jobs that Allow for Few Breaks

Sure, experts recommend drinking water every 15 minutes or so to maintain hydration levels, but we know that isn't possible for every job. Going a long period of time without fluids can contribute significantly to dehydration in your body.

How to Handle It

Give yourself the best start by arriving to work fully hydrated.

Since breaks are few and far between, you’ll want to make the most of each one by choosing foods and drinks that will offer the biggest hydration benefits. According to the hydration index, milk and orange juice are two of the best options.

Foods with high water content (think cucumber, celery, lettuce, strawberries) can also help keep you well hydrated throughout your shift.

Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages, which are known to contribute to dehydration.

Humid Environments

Though humidity often accompanies heat, it’s actually a whole different monster when it comes to dehydration.

High levels of humidity interfere with the body’s ability to get rid of heat by evaporating sweat from the surface of the skin. So, we tend to lose more fluid through sweating, but our bodies can’t get rid of it – and this can lead to discomfort and danger.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that since humid air has higher water content, you’ll get less dehydrated. This is absolutely false.

How to Handle It

Like those in hot environments, workers in humid conditions should keep fluids with them and drink at frequent intervals (preferably every 15 to 20 minutes), even if they don’t feel thirsty.

If possible, take short but regular breaks in a cool, less humid area to help the body recover a bit. During these breaks, continue to hydrate.

Conclusion

As you can see, heat isn’t the only culprit when it comes to dehydration. Environments that are cold, humid, allow for fewer breaks, or require heavy PPE also pose a significant risk for fluid loss.

The most dangerous part? Many workers don’t even realize it.