As record heat waves continue to scorch throughout the U.S this summer, it is important to know the dangers and warning signs of heat stress. While temperatures climb during the summer months, the increase risks of heat-related illnesses or HRIs, increase as well. According to a study by the CDC, approximately 90% of heat related deaths occur during the months of May, June, July and August. Many people can be affected by heat stress such as athletes, adventurists, home gardeners, but the people most at risk are those whose occupations require long hours outside in the elements. Construction workers, professional landscapers, firefighters, and those in other industries who are exposed to high temperatures are just some of the workers that are affected. So, what exactly is heat stress?
Heat stress occurs when the body cannot get rid of excess heat.
When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and heart rate increases. If the body continues to store heat, you can begin to lose concentration and can have difficulty focusing on a task. You may become irritable or sick and can lose the desire to drink liquids. This can result in a loss of consciousness or ultimately death.
There are four main types of heat stress: heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. With each type of heat stress, the symptoms become more severe over time. The most common type of heat stress is heat rash, or prickly heat. A heat rash is a skin irritation caused by sweat that does not evaporate from the skin. Symptoms include a cluster of red bumps that often appears on neck, chest, and folds of the skin. Once a heat rash has developed, workers should move to a cooler, less humid environment whenever possible and keep the affected area dry as well.
Heat cramps are the second type of heat stress. Heat cramps are caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Low salt levels in the muscles cause painful cramps. Cramps can occur during the working hours or at home. Symptoms include pain and muscle spasms – often in the legs and abdomen. If you develop heat cramps, rest in a shady, cool area. Be sure to drink water or other cool, hydrating beverages. You should wait a few hours before returning to strenuous work. If the cramps do not go away over time, seek medical treatment.
Heat exhaustion is your body’s response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating. The blood in your body pools in the skin, taking vital nutrients away from the brain. This can cause headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, irritability and raised heart rate, just to name a few. If you are on the job and are experiencing these symptoms, sit or lie down in a cool, shady area. Drink plenty of water and use cold compresses/ice packs to help cool your body. Do not return to work that day and call 911 if the symptoms do not improve within in 60 minutes.
Heat stroke is the fourth and most dangerous of the HRI’s. This occurs when your body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer dissipate the excess heat. Your heart rate increases. Fainting and even seizures can occur. If you experience any of these symptoms, immediately call for medical attention. While waiting for help to arrive, lie in a cool, shady area, loosen, or remove clothing and apply ice packs or cool compress, if available.
Preventing Heat Stress on the Jobsite
There are steps you can take to help prevent or lessen exposure to heat stress. The most important step you can take is to learn the signs and symptoms of heat stress, so that when they start to develop, you can take the necessary steps to cool your body down. Also remember to pace your work. Take adequate rest periods in the shade or cooler environment. Keep shaded from direct heat whenever possible (example: wearing a hat in direct sunshine). Always be sure to drink plenty of water. The hotter the jobsite site, the more fluids you need to keep your body properly hydrated. Pay attention to the projected daily heat index and increase your hydration accordingly.
Clothing can be an important tool in preventing HRIs. Consider using moisture- wicking clothing to help cool your core body temperature down. According to a 2014 study, wearing moisture- wicking clothing was found to do a better job of cooling the body versus 100% cotton clothing.
So as the summer months continue to heat up, remember to look for the signs and symptoms of heat stress, keep cool and stay out of direct sunlight as much as you can, and drink plenty of fluids throughout the day with many rest periods in between. These are just some of the key elements to remember this summer.
If you have any questions about the dangers of heat stress or require additional EHS support, please contact Luke Denton, Safety and Compliance Specialist, with The EI Group at (919) 634-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org.