Heat Stress: When is Hot Too Hot?

It is that time of year again when the weather starts to warm up and we become more active outdoors. I was recently working in my backyard on the first 80+ degree-day of the year and began to get dizzy and disoriented. I started thinking to myself that I was encountering a heat-related illness – was it heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or possibly just heat cramps? So many terms and levels of danger! Heat stress is the general term used to describe heat-generated illnesses that result when the body is unable to cool itself through sweating. What should we know about heat stress and what can we do to prevent it?

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): “Workers at risk of heat stress include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments such as firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, factory workers, and others. Workers at greater risk of heat stress include those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications that may be affected by extreme heat.” Basically, if you work or play in a hot environment you are at risk of heat stress.

Dangerous Heat Situations

So, how do you know when hot may be too hot? Consider these situations that can elevate your body temperature to dangerous levels:

  • High temperatures
  • Increased humidity
  • Strong sun
  • No air movement
  • No controls in place to reduce the impacts of equipment that radiates heat
  • Wearing protective clothing or gear
  • Strenuous work

Best Practices for Working in Heat

The best defense we have for preventing heat stress is proper work practices and training. Implement these best work practices:

  1. Limit time in a hot environment.
  2. Take frequent breaks in a cool environment.
  3. Drink plenty of cool water or non-caffeinated beverages.
  4. Acclimate employees to hot conditions over 7 to 14 days.
  5. Train employees to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses.
  6. Train employees on first aid procedures and when it’s time to contact emergency medical services.
  7. Train employees on the causes of heat related illnesses and ways to minimize these causes.

Heat Safety Resources

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has an excellent training tool that can be downloaded and printed for use in training employees on risk factors for heat illnesses, symptoms of heat exhaustion/heat stroke, prevention measures, how to protect yourself, and what to do when someone is ill from the heat. Click here for this training document.

Other links you might find useful include OSHA’s “Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers,” NIOSH’s recommendations for the control of heat stress, and the Society Insurance Risk Control library safety bulletin, “Working In Hot Conditions.”

For more heat safety tips and resources, don’t miss:

-Paul Fuerbringer

Author

Paul is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater with a degree in Occupational Safety. He is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with over 33 years of experience in the safety field.

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