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As heat stress can cause workplace injuries and illness it is important for workers to be protected against the heat, sun exposure and other hazards that could result in severe injury. The American Society of Safety Engineers, the 99-year-old safety society with more than 32,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members, suggests employers and employees be aware of the factors that can lead to heat stress, the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, preventing heat stress and what can be done for heat-related illnesses.
First, when one’s body is unable to cool itself by sweating, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), several heat-induced illnesses such as heat stress or exhaustion and the more severe heat stroke can occur, and can result in death. Factors leading to these conditions include high temperatures; being in direct sun or heat; limited air movement; physical exertion; poor physical condition; some medicines; and, inadequate tolerance for hot workplaces.
“Heat and humidity can be a serious safety threat to all workers during the summer – from lifeguards; to agriculture, construction and roadway workers,” ASSE president Darryl C. Hill, PhD, CSP, said. “People should think twice if they begin to feel these symptoms and act quickly.”
Headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting; weakness and moist skin; mood changes such as irritability or confusion and upset stomach and vomiting are symptoms of heat exhaustion.
Symptoms of heat stroke include dry, hot skin with no sweating; mental confusion or losing consciousness; and, seizures or convulsions.
To prevent heat stress officials suggest that you monitor co-workers and yourself. Prevention efforts include blocking out direct sun or other heat sources; using cooling fans or air conditioning; and, to rest regularly. It is also important to drink lots of water, about one cup every 15 minutes; and, to wear lightweight, light colored, loose-fitting clothes. It is recommended that if in the sun to avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks and heavy meals. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), heat can also cause injury due to accidents related to sweaty palms, fogged up glasses and dizziness. Sunburns are also a hazard of sun and heat exposure. Suggested tips for employees and employers to use in order to prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries include:
• Use cooling pads that can be inserted into hardhats or around the neck to keep the head and neck cool. Vented hardhats or neckbands soaked in cold water can also be used to minimize prolonged heat exposure and prevent the body from overheating.
• Wear protective eyewear that features sufficient ventilation or anti-fog lens coating to reduce lens fogging from the heat. Sweatbands can also be used to prevent perspiration from dripping into the eyes.
• Use gloves with leather palms and cotton or denim backs, which allow for an increased airglow and still protect hands. Also, choose gloves with a liner to absorb sweat preventing perspiration buildup. Some gloves also feature strips of nylon mesh or are perforated at the back of the hand for more airflow.
• Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as cotton, recommends OSHA.
• Take breaks in cooler shaded areas.
• For workers exposed to extreme heat, proper hand protection from burns depends on the temperature and type of work to which workers are exposed.
• To prevent dehydration, another hazard associated with exposure to heat, NIOSH recommends that workers drink five to seven ounces of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes. Drink cool water and avoid diuretics such as coffee, tea, alcohol or soda that actually deplete body fluid. Sports drinks are also good for replacing fluid in the body but use should be monitored due to the high sodium content.
A recent Professional Safety journal article titled ‘Heat Stress – Improving safety in the Arabian Gulf oil and gas industry’ describes the working in heat situation in the State of Qatar and what one company did to index the severity of the heat-related illness problem and the preventive work practices provided to workers resulting in a reduction of heat-stress-related medical treatments. The authors, ASSE member Oliver F. McDonald, CSP, CIH; Nigel J. Shanks, M.D., Ph.D.; and Laurent Fragu, M.S., said heat stress disorders span a spectrum from minor heat to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. They noted that the State of Qatar had banned midday working hours for certain employees during the hottest times of the year due to the threat of heat-related disorders.
The authors noted the practices used in Qatar to reduce heat-related stress to workers included: allowing workers to become acclimated to the heat; using engineering controls such as cooling, ventilation and shading – difficult due to the daily change in environments; providing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as umbrellas and evaporative bandanas; constant distribution of water in insulated water bottles; work scheduling; employee rotation; self-evaluation; using the buddy system; working in shade and shielding; area cooling; ventilation and mechanical assistance; water stations placed inside or near rest areas; and, mandatory water breaks.
In addition, heat stress communication materials/safety tips were posted at key work locations and colored flags alerting workers to the heat index were flown above the work projects. Materials for the workers were available in several languages as well as providing employee training to new and existing employees and contractors to explain heat stress symptoms, the heat index system, the color coding and the controls implemented. The program was recognized as a significant positive work practice during a recent company audit.
For more information go to www.cdc.gov/niosh/blog/nsb071408_summerheat.html, OSHA at http://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3155.pdf or its http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_Hurricane_Facts/working_outdoors.pdf for heat stress and other hot-weather hazards information.
Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, IL-based ASSE is the largest and oldest professional safety organization and is committed to protecting people, property and the environment. Its more than 32,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professional members manage, supervise, research and consult on safety, health, transportation and environmental issues in all industries, government, labor and education. Go to www.asse.org/newsroom for more information and topics.