There are numerous jobs throughout the country that involve hot environments, both indoors and out. And since working in these conditions can affect the body’s ability to cool itself down, workers must be educated about the dangers of heat stress and how to prevent it.
There are more workers at risk of heat stress than you might think. Some common industries with hot work environments include:
- Road construction
- Forest fire fighting
- Pulp and paper manufacturing
- Industrial laundries
- Steel manufacturing and fabricating
- Boiler rooms
- Working near cement kilns
Here, we’ll go over some heat stress basics and then discuss seven key ways to prevent heat stress before it has a chance to take hold.
What You Need to Know About Heat Stress
Our bodies naturally maintain a consistent temperature (usually ranging from 36 to 38°C, or 96.8 to 100.4°F). When the body's core temperature rises above this range, it reacts to get rid of that excess heat. But if we gain heat faster than we can release it, our body temperature increases and we experience what’s known as heat stress.
Heat stress isn’t an illness in and of itself. It’s actually a collective term for three heat-related illnesses:
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion
(Learn more about The Dangers of On-the-Job Dehydration.)
Key Contributors to Heat Stress
There are three key factors that contribute to the onset of heat stress. If you want to prevent heat stress, you need to consider all of these:
- Air temperature
- Radiant heat (e.g. from the sun or a kiln)
- Work rate
- Medical conditions
How to Stop Heat Stress in Its Tracks
Luckily for workers, there are a number of easy ways to keep heat stress at bay. Here are seven of the best.
1. Stay Fit
Excess body fat insulates the body, which causes it to retain heat. That means people who are physically fit and in a healthy weight range are able to better handle (or ward off) heat stress than those who aren’t.
Workers who want to stay fit are encouraged to do regular aerobic activities like walking, running, cycling, or swimming.
Arriving to work already dehydrated puts you at a much greater risk for developing heat stress. Workers should come to work fully hydrated by drinking up to 16 ounces of fluid before work begins. Once work activities start, workers should drink about 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes to replace the fluids they lose through perspiration (find out why Hydration in the Workplace Is Not Just a Summer Issue).
3. Replace Electrolytes Throughout Your Shift
Low or out of balance electrolytes (often caused by intense sweating) contributes to the onset of heat cramps and heat exhaustion. Workers who spend more than an hour at a time in hot environments should add electrolytes to their fluids, which helps replace the sodium lost through perspiration.
4. Cover up Exposed Skin – Except on Your Head
Many of us believe that wearing a hat helps prevent heat-related illnesses from taking hold. But safety experts recommend wearing visors instead of full hats, as they can restrict heat loss through the head.
You do want to cover other exposed areas, though. Wearing loose, lightweight, synthetic long-sleeve shirts and long pants can actually help you stay cool as the sweat on your skin evaporates. Avoid cotton, as it tends to soak up sweat and prevent evaporation.
5. Use Sunscreen
People often think of sunscreen as a way to prevent sunburns, not heat stress. But the Mayo Clinic notes that sunburns actually contribute to the development of heat stress by preventing the body from being able to properly cool itself. They recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, and reapplying it generously ever two hours (or more, if you’re sweating excessively). Ideally, choose a natural sunscreen that is free of chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, and homosalate.
6. Take Regular Breaks
Establishing adequate work-rest cycles gives workers time to cool down throughout the work day. These breaks should be scheduled and strictly enforced and should take place in a cool, shaded area or an area with good ventilation. Plenty of cool fluids should be made available to the workers as well.
7. Acclimatize Slowly
Throwing yourself into work in a hot environment puts you at significant risk for heat stress. Instead, experts recommend exposing yourself to the hot environment slowly, over five to seven days.
New workers should increase their time spent in the heat by about 20 percent each day, while workers who are already used to hot conditions can increase their exposure a bit more rapidly. However, any worker who has spent four or more days out of the heat must re-acclimatize.
Heat stress is treatable, but why treat it when you could prevent it altogether? A combination of smart work practices and administrative controls will help your workers stay safe in the heat and keep focused on the task at hand.