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August Safety Topic: How Do You Prevent Heat Exhaustion at Work?

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Last month, Ronnie Bowles collapsed on a front porch while delivering mail in the sweltering Virginia heat. Despite efforts from Fire & Rescue responders, Bowles later passed away at a local hospital.
 
Too often, workers like Bowles brush off symptoms of heat stress like headache, nausea, and dizziness. Eager to “man up”, over 3,100 American workers suffered from heat-related illness and 34 workers died from heat stroke in a single year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Safety directors can prevent heat exhaustion and related injuries by knowing the risk factors, symptoms, and following a few simple tips to create a culture of safety in hot work environments.

Risk factors for heat-related illness

First thing: While 40% of heat-related worker deaths happen in the construction industry, construction workers aren't the only ones at risk. Like Ronnie Bowles, workers in every field — both outdoors and in — can suffer from heat-related illness.

Roofers, road workers, landscape workers, oil and gas well operators who work in sweltering weather and direct sun are frequent victims. So are workers in steel foundries, tire plants, boiler rooms, and commercial kitchens.

Other risk factors may be less obvious: Working alone, drinking energy drinks, or consuming alcohol all increase the risk of heat injury.

Whatever the cause, recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat stress is critical to preventing a tragedy.

Recognize the signs and symptoms of heat stress

The symptoms of heat stress can progress rapidly and are always serious.

Heat exhaustion can occur anytime workers are exposed to hot conditions. Common signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Profuse sweating
  • Fainting

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can be fatal. Watch for these common signs of heat stroke:

  • Abnormal lack of sweating
  • Muscle weakness
  • Red, hot skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Confusion, disorientation, or staggering
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

Keep crews safe with these tips:

  1. Make the work environment cooler with air-conditioned break rooms, increased ventilation, cooling fans, and reflective shields.

  2. Enforce rest breaks in cool, shady areas.

  3. Provide drinking water near the work area, and remind workers to drink water frequently. ACGIH recommends 1 cup every 20 minutes when working in the heat.

  4. Adjust work operations to reduce physical demands in hot weather or schedule heavier work for cooler times of the day. 

  5. Gradually build up the workload for new workers and allow frequent breaks.

  6. Provide cooling personal protective equipment like chiller vests, hats, and bandanas.

  7. Create a heat illness prevention plan that outlines prevention and emergency response procedures.

  8. Train workers about the hazards of heat exposure and how to prevent them.

  9. Encourage workers to watch each other for symptoms of heat-related illness.

  10. Monitor workers who are at risk of heat-related illness.

Technology can help prevent heat injuries

Download the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety app to calculate workplace risk level and get customized reminders to drink water, take breaks, and peer monitor for signs of heat-related illness.

EHS software can also help you manage heat safety training, organize action plans, and track safety issues before they become accidents. With Perillon mobile health and safety software  <http://www.perillon.com/health-and-safety>, you can do it all on your smartphone from the work site or factory floor.

Bottom line

Heat stress is always serious, and it's your job to make sure your crews get the work done safely. It all comes down to having an adequate heat illness prevention program in place and creating a culture of safety.

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