From construction workers to farmhands to roofers to warehouse employees, the summer heat can have a devastating effect on workplace safety. As temperatures rise so can injuries—at least if you’re not prepared. According to a recent press release from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “Every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill due to working in the heat. About one-third of heat-related worker deaths occur in the construction industry, but outdoor workers in every field—including agriculture, landscaping, transportation, and oil and gas operations—are susceptible to the dangers of heat.”
In this article, we’ll discuss five common workplace heat hazards and share tips for preventing illness and injury this summer.
Hydration. Hydration. Hydration.
When it’s hot out, you sweat more. When you sweat more, you become more susceptible to dehydration. Dehydration happens when your body uses more water than it’s taking in. And it’s a common cause of workplace illness during the summer.
Symptoms of dehydration include weakness, dizziness, dry mouth, muscle cramps, lightheadedness, and fainting. Occasionally dehydration can also result in a high fever. To prevent dehydration, drink water or hydrating sports drinks every 15 minutes, even if you’re not thirsty. Be sure to take regular cool-down breaks to help control your body temperature and reduce excess perspiration.
Don’t feel the burn.
Sunburn isn’t just a problem for beach-goers. It’s a major hazard for those who work outdoors—especially in the summertime. Why’s that? The position of the sun in relation to the Earth can cause a more severe burn in summer than other seasons.
Mild sunburn may only cause temporary discomfort, but more severe burns can result in swells and blisters that take weeks to heal. Furthermore, ongoing sunburn can have severe long-term consequences, such as an increased risk of skin cancer, increased number of cold sores, wrinkling, and brown spots.
Workers who are exposed to the sun for half an hour or more should wear sweat-proof sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher. Sunscreen should be reapplied every 60 to 80 minutes. As much as possible, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on bright summer days.
Manage your body heat.
Sunburn and dehydration are no laughing matter, especially if you’re the one rubbing aloe on your skin each night. But heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which is a life-threatening condition. It occurs when a person’s body has to work extra hard to maintain a stable core temperature in a hot environment—either outside or indoors.
Despite the misconception that heat only affects those who are weak or out of shape, this heat-related illness can happen to anyone. And the protective measures many workers are required to wear on the job everyday—like headgear, boots, and bulky work clothing—can actually make those laboring in hot conditions even more susceptible to heat exhaustion.
Heat stroke symptoms include confusion, irrational behavior, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and high blood pressure. Heat exhaustion symptoms include headache, nausea, vertigo, weakness, thirst, muscle cramps, and fainting. It’s critical that workers know the signs of both heat exhaustion and heat stroke and are properly trained on what to do when someone is suffering from either condition.
To avoid heat exhaustion, mandate regularly scheduled breaks in cool or shaded areas. Provide plenty of water and cool, damp cloths to place on hot skin.
Slippery when sweat.
We’ve already discussed how sweat can lead to dehydration, but excessive sweating can cause other types of workplace injury too. For example, sweaty hands can lead to loss of grip, increasing the potential of workplace injuries from dropped objects, cuts, or lacerations.
Fortunately, modern work gloves are made with synthetic fibers to help keep hands cool and comfortable while maintaining dexterity and grip. If you’re working in high heat conditions this summer and susceptible to sweating, invest in a good pair of gloves to keep hands dry and safe.
Get your shades on.
Bright sunlight can not only result in sunburnt skin, but also visual impairment. Your eyes can actually become sunburned if left exposed without protection, resulting in vision problems, burning pain, decreased eyesight, or partial or complete vision loss.
You can’t put sunscreen on your eyes, but you can still protect them. Wear sunglasses with total UV protection anytime your eyes are exposed to bright sunlight. Not only will you prevent sunburn, but you’ll also prevent injuries that may have been caused by not being able to see clearly in the bright glare of the sun.
Although all workers exposed to high heat environments are susceptible to heat-related injury, some are more susceptible than others. And those at the greatest risk are individuals who have not built up a tolerance to such conditions. That could be new employees, temporary employees, or those returning to work after time off. To help prevent the heat injuries discussed here, encourage all workers to ease into summer by taking more frequent breaks as they get used to the heat.
OSHA has partnered with the National Weather Service to develop a smartphone app for heat safety. The free app, which is compatible with Apple® devices, helps workers calculate heat risks at a worksite. With newly added alert functionality, the app can “let you know instantly if you are in a high risk zone due to heat and humidity—and precautions that need to be taken to prevent heat-related illness.” You can learn more about keeping cool and preventing heat-related injuries in the workplace at OSHA.gov.