Heat Illness and Workers’ Safety Precautions

Heat Illness and Workers’ Safety Precautions

Heat-related deaths are one of the deadliest weather-related health outcomes in the United States. Heat illnesses result from exposure to extreme heat that prevents the body from cooling itself down. Some risk factors can increase the likelihood of a person experiencing heat illness. Workers at the greatest risk for heat illnesses include people 65 years and older and people who have preexisting medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Almost all heat-related deaths in the United States occur between May and September; leaders should be on high alert for heat illnesses during the summer months. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently established heat as a priority issue among their national emphasis programs. Businesses are encouraged to educate employees and supervisors on heat illness symptoms and treatment instructions as well as general prevention strategies that can protect employees during the hottest months.

Heat stroke is the most severe type of heat illness, which can result in high body temperatures and potential damage to the brain and vital organs. It is a medical emergency. Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • High body temperature (103°F or higher),
  • Rapid heart rate,
  • Headache,
  • Dizziness,
  • Nausea,
  • Confusion, and/or
  • Loss of consciousness.

If you observe someone with these symptoms, call emergency services immediately, and move the person to a cooler, shaded place. Cool, damp cloths may be applied to the person’s face and body to cool them down. If the person is conscious, they may drink water slowly.

Heat exhaustion symptoms can vary, if a coworker is suspected of experiencing heat exhaustion, immediate action is necessary. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating,
  • Feeling cold or having clammy skin,
  • Nausea or vomiting,
  • Muscle cramps,
  • Fatigue,
  • Headache,
  • Dizziness, and/or
  • Fainting.

If you observe someone with symptoms of heat exhaustion, move the person to a cooler location out of direct sunlight, loosen or remove unnecessary clothing, and have them drink water or sports drinks containing electrolytes. Cool, damp cloths may be applied to the person’s face and body to cool them down. If symptoms persist for more than 60 minutes, seek medical help immediately. Heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke if not treated promptly, so vigilance and swift action are crucial.

Heat cramps are frequently experienced during exercise in high heat conditions. Symptoms usually manifest as:

  • Heavy sweating during exercise and
  • Uncomfortable or painful muscle cramps.

Heat cramps are usually a result of strenuous physical activity and loss of salts through sweating, so it’s crucial to rehydrate the person. Give them plenty of water to drink, ideally mixed with a sports drink or other beverage containing electrolytes if available. Gentle stretching and massaging of the affected muscles can also help in easing the cramps. If the cramps continue for an hour or more, or if the person has heart problems or is on a low-sodium diet, medical attention should be sought. In the meantime, keep the person comfortable, encourage them to rest and hydrate themselves, and do not let them return to strenuous activity until they have fully recovered from the cramps to avoid progression to a more severe form of heat illness.

Heat Illness Prevention Strategies

  • Provide employee training on heat illness prevention and response.
  • Encourage healthy hydration habits by providing regular access to drinking water.
  • On hot days, avoid energy drinks as they can increase heart rate and make someone more susceptible to heat exhaustion or stroke.
  • Adjust work schedules to avoid the hottest parts of the day, and implement work/rest schedules for new or returning employees. The OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool app reports local heat and humidity levels, which can be used to customize work schedules on a daily basis in accordance with weather conditions.
  • For physically demanding tasks, provide protective yet breathable clothing and promote job rotation to prevent excessive exposure. Monitor the weather closely and have an emergency plan.
  • Use air conditioning, increase ventilation, shield from heat sources, and use cooling fans to reduce heat exposure indoors.

Connect with a member of our commercial risk team today to learn more about workers’ safety and risk mitigation stratagies. 

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