Proper hydration is essential in any workplace, but some are more demanding than others.
Those who work on construction sites, in contaminated working areas, manufacturing facilities, confined spaces, outdoor work environments, and hot or poorly ventilated indoor environments will need to take special care to stay hydrated.
These workplaces and jobsites have environmental conditions (such as high heat) that contribute to dehydration. The work carried out in them also tends to be physically strenuous and often involves layers of non-breathable PPE.
(Learn more in A Sweaty Situation: PPE, Hydration, and How to Manage Both.)
Confined spaces can sometimes present challenges to staying hydrated thanks to increased temperatures, atmospheric hazards, contaminants, strenuous work, and PPE.
Entering and cleaning a drilling mud tank, for instance, can be strenuous work in an atmosphere contaminated with H2S. Workers must wear all the appropriate PPE to protect them from the mud while being under supplied air. That makes it difficult to replenish fluids.
(Find out What Your Confined Space Program Needs to Cover.)
On many construction sites, workers are exposed to direct sun and high humidity while doing strenuous activity over an extended period of time. Without care to stay hydrated, construction workers can easily and quickly succumb to heat-related illnesses.
Manufacturing facilities can have high temperature environments or environments that are contaminated with chemicals, dusts, or hazardous mixtures which would make it difficult or unsafe to hydrate in the work area.
Manufacturing activities that produce a lot of dust will require workers to wear respirators while working. These workers might only be able to remove their respirators and hydrate when they leave the area. Moreover, the need for protective clothing like coveralls can prevent sweat from evaporating from the skin, which impedes the body's natural ability to cool itself.
Work that takes place outdoors is varied, and each type of job will pose its own specific set of hazards. But one thing you can expect from most of them is a high potential for dehydration.
In seismic exploration projects, workers must routinely walk 7.5 to 10 miles per day carrying, laying out, and picking up geophones, or setting off seismic charges while walking through swamps and isolated wooded areas in high heat and humidity. In those conditions, a few sips of water whenever workers feel thirsty might not cut it.
Factors Contributing to Heat Exposure
Legislation doesn't always specify hard limits for maximum temperatures at work locations. Often, regulations refer to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) threshold limit values (TLVs) for heat stress and heat exposure. When you're planning work, refer to those figures to understand the risk involved.
Temperature is not the only factor to consider in relation to exposure limits. Several other factors must be considered as well such as:
- Time spent working vs. resting
- Strenuousness of the work carried out
- Clothing and PPE worn by workers
- Sun exposure
- Air movement and ventilation
- How acclimated the workers are
- The physical demands of the work itself
The Effects of Dehydration
Heat-related illnesses occur due to the body's inability to regulate its temperature, which is usually linked to dehydration. Sweating helps cool down the body, and the body needs to be hydrated to sweat.
The effects of dehydration can range from thirst and cramping to nausea, dizziness, and death. I have seen dehydration cases ranging from mild muscle cramps to situations requiring temporary hospitalization.
Heat rash is the most common issue with working in hot environments. Symptoms can include itchiness, red blotches in areas that constantly sweat, and itching or soreness where sweating occurs.
Heat cramps occur due to dehydration and a lack of sodium. Your muscles may become tight and cramped. This can be a warning sign for heat exhaustion, so anyone suffering from heat cramps should move to a cool location and rehydrate.
If left untreated, heat cramps can progress to heat exhaustion. Like heat cramps, it results from dehydration and a lack of sodium.
Heat exhaustion can lead to a drop in blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, faintness, sweating, cold skin, and muscle cramping. As with heat cramps, anyone suffering from heat exhaustion should move to a cool place and rehydrate.
If it goes unchecked, heat exhaustion can turn to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is extremely dangerous and can become fatal if the body temperature exceeds 104ºF
Those suffering from heat stroke can lose their ability to sweat. The body losing its ability to cool itself down can result in loss of control over the nervous system as well as organ failure.
Victims of heat stroke often don't recognize what is happening to them. Their survival depends on the knowledge of their coworkers or supervisors. Those who recognize the symptoms in someone else should get help since treatment is required immediately.
Knowing the Signs
To recognize dehydration, it is important for workers to know the signs. These include:
- Dark urine color
- Loss of focus
- Dry mouth
- Dry skin
- Heavy sweating
Steps to Preventing Dehydration in the Workplace
Staying hydrated is all about taking small steps to ensure that fluids are consumed regularly, heat exposure is managed, and additional factors are taken into account.
Preventing dehydration at work involves:
- Drinking regularly during the work day
- Hydrating before starting work, regularly while working, and after the work is finished
- Planning the work around hydration requirements and heat stress risks
- Educating workers on the importance of staying hydrated
- Referencing ACGIH TLVs for thermal stress and implementing them into your work plan, company policies, and procedures
- Ensuring proper work and rest cycles
- Determining whether work can be done at a time when the risk of heat-related illness is reduced
- Rotating workers to reduce exposure time and to allow for proper hydration and cool downs
- Making water and electrolye-rich beverages available and establishing hydration breaks in a cool and comfortable environment
- Factoring heat stress and hydration into hazard assessments and pre-task meetings
- Training workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and how to treat them
- Getting out of the heat and cooling off at the first sign of lightheadedness, fatigue, or dizziness
- Wearing light colored and light clothing
- Choosing the most adequate PPE for the conditions
Hydration Is Never Optional
Some work environments make hydration difficult, but that's no excuse for neglecting it. The safety of workers depends on ensuring they get the fluids and electrolytes their bodies need to function.
With proper education, policies, procedures, and planning, work can be done safely and hydration can be made a priority in any environment.