The Dangers of Heat Stress
June 1, 2020
Workers who are exposed to extreme industrial heat sources or who work in hot environments face numerous occupational hazards related to heat stress, such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rash, and heat stroke. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report that thousands of workers become ill from heat exposure every year, and in some cases, they die from severe medical complications.
Some Workers are High Risk for Heat Stress
Both indoor and outdoor workers can fall victim to heat stress-related hazards, especially when an employer is negligent and fails to provide an effective safety and health program to mitigate known risk factors. Certain workers are more likely to experience heat-related illnesses, like:
- Outdoor construction workers (e.g. roofers, landscapers, and road workers)
- Bakers, kitchen, and laundry personnel, as well as workers who are in close proximity to heat-generating appliances
- Fire service employees
- Oil and gas warehouse workers
- Manufacturing plant employees who work with local heat sources, such as furnaces
- Iron and steel mill workers
- Mail and package delivery personnel
Symptoms of Heat Stress
It is essential to know the many signs of heat stress and heat-related illnesses. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats, and is usually accompanied by symptoms like a weak or rapid pulse, cool, moist skin with goosebumps even when exposed to heat, faintness, dizziness, sweating, and low blood pressure upon standing. If signs of heat exhaustion do not improve within an hour, the person begins to throw up or his or her symptoms worsen, get medical help right away. Heat cramps are involuntary, painful muscle spasms that happen as a result of physical exertion in hot environments. Typically, heat cramps present with symptoms like muscle cramping, fatigue, and painful, and involuntary muscle spasms that most often occur in the legs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people experiencing heat cramps seek medical attention if:
- They have heart problems
- They are on a low-sodium diet
- They experience cramping that lasts more than 1 hour
Heat rash is generally considered one of the most minor forms of heat illness. It is a skin condition that results from sweat being trapped beneath the skin or by blocked sweat ducts. The condition usually goes away on it’s own but depending on how severe it is, it can require a trip to the doctor or dermatologist. Common signs of heat rash include an itchy or prickly sensation in addition to a rash that appears as bumps, blisters, or generalized skin redness. Unlike heat rash, heat stroke is one of the most serious and dangerous types of heat-related illnesses. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and if someone is experiencing it, call 9-1-1 immediately. Signs of heat stroke include a core body temperature of over 103 degrees, confusion, loss of consciousness, a fast, strong pulse, hot, red, dry, or damp skin, headache, and nausea. If a person is having a heat stroke, move them to a cooler place, do not give them anything to drink, and help lower their temperature by using cool cloths or if possible, by administering a cool bath.
Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses
Heat-related illnesses are preventable, but first management must dedicate itself to prioritizing workplace safety and health concerns. OSHA estimates that 50-70% of outdoor fatalities happen in the first few days of exposure, largely in part due to workers not having ample opportunity to build up a tolerance through a process known as heat acclimatization. OSHA recommends that in the first few days of heat exposure employers implement shorter shifts, provide frequent breaks, quickly identify heat illness symptoms, and encourage workers to consume adequate fluids like sports drinks and water to give them time to safely acclimate to warmer conditions.
Indoor workers also face heat stress-related risks. Luckily, there are several engineering controls that employers can use to help prevent heat stress illnesses from occurring. Some examples of these control methods include increasing air flow and ventilation by using air conditioning units and empowering both supervisors and workers to slow down physical labor and other manual tasks during bouts of particularly warm weather or hot indoor conditions. It is also critical that all managers, supervisors, and workers receive training on heat-related symptoms and how to provide potentially lifesaving first aid.
Employers are responsible for providing workplaces free from recognizable hazards, which includes heat-related ones. If you have been injured at work, someone at our firm can help you navigate filing a workers’ compensation claim. To learn more, contact a representative online now.
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