Prevention of heat stress and heat illness in workers is important. Employers should provide training to workers so they understand what heat stress is, how it affects their health and safety, and how it can be prevented. If you’re an outdoor worker, it is important to take precautions against exposure to sun, heat and bug bites during the summer months.
Heat and humidity can cause several heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Normally, the body has ways to keep itself cool by allowing heat to escape through the skin and evaporating sweat (perspiration). However, if the body can’t cool down properly or does not cool down enough, a person may suffer a heat-related illness. Anyone is susceptible to a heat-related illness, but the very young and elderly are at the greatest risk. Heat-related illnesses can become serious or even deadly if unattended.
These are three types of heat-related emergencies to be mindful of:
- Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms caused by heavy exertion. They are generally the result of a loss of water and salt through sweating.
- Heat exhaustion is caused by fluid loss and decreased blood flow to the vital organs. It can produce flu-like symptoms.
- Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related emergency and occurs when the body’s internal cooling system fails. It is life-threatening and requires immediate and aggressive action—call 911.
The combination of heat and humidity can be a serious health threat during the summer months. In the simplest terms, dehydration occurs when you lose more water than you take in. Staying hydrated is important to keep all your body functions running smoothly. Since you work outdoors and exert yourself physically, you’ll want to take extra precautions as summer heats up. To beat the heat:
- Listen to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio for critical updates from the National Weather Service
Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as dry-fit material
Be aware that equipment such as respirators or work suits can increase heat stress
Eat smaller meals before work activity
- Drink plenty of water before you get thirsty (Skip the caffeine and soda; drink water instead) People with epilepsy; heart, kidney or liver disease; or who are on fluid-restricted diets or have problems with fluid retention should consult a doctor before increasing their fluid intake.
- Use the buddy system, take frequent breaks and rehydrate when working in extreme heat
- If possible, try to avoid strenuous work during the warmest part of the day
- Take a cool shower or apply a cold compress to your pulse points to cool down quickly
On average, adults lose almost 10 cups of water a day simply by doing everyday tasks such as sweating, breathing and going to the bathroom. Electrolytes are also lost. These minerals, which include sodium, potassium and calcium, maintain the balance of fluids in the body. When you are doing physical work, you lose even more fluids and electrolytes. If you begin to feel symptoms of dehydration, don’t ignore them. How do you know if you’re dehydrated? You’ll begin to experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Excessive thirst
- Sleepiness or tiredness
- Dry mouth
- Muscle weakness
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
Heat kills by pushing the human body beyond its limits. In extreme heat and high humidity, evaporation is slowed and the body must work extra hard to maintain a normal temperature. Most heat disorders occur because the victim has been overexposed to heat or has over-exercised for his or her age and physical condition. Older adults, young children and those who are sick or overweight are more likely to succumb to extreme heat.
OSHA has put together a number of tools for employers and employees to use to prevent heat illness. OSHA’s web page includes educational materials, training and an online toolkit for employers to use. Additionally, OSHA developed a heat safety app for both Apple and Android devices that allows users to determine the risk of heat illness in a specific location.
Sun and Harmful UV Rays
Along with the punishing heat the sun helps provide, sun exposure is the primary cause of over 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancer cases reported in the United States. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and over two million people are diagnosed annually.
Working outside, you may not be able to avoid working in the sun. But protecting against the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays is something we can all try to do more of:
- Cover up. Wear lightweight, tightly woven clothing that you can’t see through.
- Use sunscreen. A sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 blocks 93 percent of UV rays. Be sure to follow application directions.
- Wear a hat. It should protect your neck, ears, forehead, nose and scalp.
- Wear UV-absorbent shades. Sunglasses should block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation. Before you buy, read the product label.
Insect Bites and Stings
When working outside, bites and stings are a relatively common occurrence. Not only are they annoying to deal with, but they can foster major health problems, including allergic reactions and chronic illnesses. You'll want to take some precautions when working outside in areas typically inhabited by bugs:
- Wear bug repellant and wash it off with soap and water when you are done with work
- Avoid wearing heavy perfumes or scented lotions
- Check before drinking from cups, bottles or cans. Stinging insects are attracted to sweet drinks
- Workers with a history of severe allergic reaction should consult a medical professional about carrying an epinephrine auto-injector and wearing an allergy identification band
If you’re working in tall grass or wooded areas, take the following precautions to protect yourself from ticks:
- Wear light-colored clothing to see ticks more easily
- Wear long sleeves and long pants
- Tuck pant legs into socks or boots
- Wear high boots or closed shoes that cover your feet completely
- Wear a hat
- Use tick repellants, but not on your face
- Wash and dry your work clothes at high temperatures
Examine your body for ticks after work. Remove any attached ticks promptly with a tweezers. In some regions, ticks may transmit Lyme disease. If you get bit and develop a rash, see your doctor.