Working in hot and humid environments is not only uncomfortable, but it can expose workers to serious health risks. Heat stress is an illness that people working in high temperatures can develop, especially if they are ill-equipped to handle the heat or lack training to identify the warning signs. If your work involves regular exposure to heat, keep reading to learn the symptoms and prevention techniques that can save lives.
What Is Heat Stress?
Heat stress occurs when your body cannot get rid of excess heat. Sweating is the body’s natural response to cools itself, but in extreme conditions, it might not be enough. This raises the body’s core temperature, increases your heart rate while damaging internal organs, and can even result in death.
Strenuous physical activity in hot environments, especially during the summer months, is a major cause of heat stress. Other factors that can increase your chances of developing heat stress include working near radiant heat sources, high humidity, and direct contact with hot objects.
The consequences of heat stress are more overarching than being a personal hazard; extreme temperatures increase the risk of workers sustaining further injuries, leading to them even endangering their coworkers. The heat may result in dizziness, burns, sweaty palms, and foggy safety glasses. Heat stress is, therefore, detrimental to your health, work quality, and overall productivity.
What Are The Symptoms?
The first step to preventing heat stress is identifying the symptoms, which can be different for everyone. The most common symptoms include:
It is crucial to identify workers who are most vulnerable to the illness so appropriate measures can be taken to allow them to work safely and efficiently.
Types of Heat Stress
The range of symptoms can manifest itself in different forms, including:
- Heat rashes
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion
- Heat syncope
The chances of developing heat stress are dependent on several factors; you need to be aware of the many factors that can increase your risk of developing heat stress:
We have already talked about high temperatures and humidity being major causes of heatstroke, but external conditions such as direct sun exposure and lack of proper ventilation can also lead to heat stress.
Physical activities that require high exertion without proper breaks can also cause heat stress, especially if you engage in this behavior every day.
Lack of Acclimatization
If you’re new to the environment, chances are it will take a while to get used to the heat of your new job, which can cause heat stress. However, over time you might build more resistance to the high temperatures and function efficiently in the workplace.
If you don’t get enough water, your body cannot rely on its sweating system to regulate its temperature, which ultimately leads to heat stress.
A number of medications can alter your tolerance to heat, such as blood pressure medicines. Make sure you discuss your working conditions with your doctor to ensure there are no unforeseen side effects.
Illness also increases your chances of developing heat stress. Both short-term conditions such as diarrhea and chronic diseases such as diabetes can lead to heat stress. Poor physical fitness and obesity can also worsen the situation.
How to Prevent Heat Stress?
It is true that the best cure is prevention, especially for heat stress, as you become more susceptible to the illness if you’ve had it previously. Prevention of heat stress requires both you and the company to put in some extra effort. While you have to focus on your personal well-being, the company is responsible for ensuring the working conditions are adequate.
What Can You Do?
- Stay hydrated and drink cold water to keep your core temperature down
- Avoid strenuous work on hot days if working outside or at least try to avoid peak sun hours
- Take breaks in covered and air-conditioned areas to cool down
- Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing made from lightweight materials like cotton or linen to ensure there is sufficient air circulation
- Wear protective cooling gear
- Try to opt for cold food options and eat smaller meals
- Use wet towels and cold showers to keep yourself cool
- Take time to get acclimatized by working shorter shifts until your body adjusts to the heat
- Keep an eye out for heat-stress related symptoms so you can stay on top of the situation
What Can Your Company Do?
- Companies operating in industries with exposure to high temperatures need to have proper heat illness prevention programs.
- Training is essential to educate employees about the causes of heat stress and inform them about steps for its prevention.
- Equip employees with the proper protective equipment, including cooling vests and hats
- If the employees work outside, ensure they have properly covered areas to provide shade.
- Provide employees with easily accessible cold drinking water
- Work schedules should incorporate frequent breaks in the shade, especially if the employees are new to the heat
- Have a designated person responsible for monitoring conditions and protecting workers who have a higher risk of heat stress.
- Ensure there is a heat stress prevention first aid kit with ice packs and water for emergencies.
Heat stress can have devastating consequences, but it is entirely preventable. As long as you look out for the signs and take proper precautions, chances are you’ll have the upper hand. Being prepared is easy once you understand the illness and how it affects your body. By understanding the risk factor and following the heat stress prevention tips above, you can take appropriate actions before the situation becomes dangerous.