Hot Weather Poses Hazards for Workers
Heat-related deaths of a construction worker and two farm workers in California’s Central Valley last month demonstrate the need for employers and their employees to be able to prevent and recognize the symptoms of potentially fatal heat-related illnesses.
Dizziness or lightheadedness; weakness; mood changes or the inability to think straight; an upset stomach; vomiting; decreased or darkened urine; fainting or passing out; and pale, clammy skin are all symptoms of heat exhaustion that workers need to watch for on hot summer days.
When precautions aren’t taken, physical work in high temperatures and high relative humidity can be a recipe for heat exhaustion, which occurs when the body is unable to cool itself sufficiently through sweating. If prompt action isn’t taken to treat heat exhaustion, the victim can suffer a heat stroke or even die.
The National Weather Service warns that high humidity can make hot temperatures especially dangerous because it retards the evaporation of sweat that cools the body down. At a relative humidity of 50%, fatigue is possible at a temperature even as low as 80 degrees. At a humidity of 70%, sunstroke, heat cramps and heat exhaustion are possible at 85 degrees, becoming more likely at 90 degrees. When the thermometer rises above 95 and the humidity is 70%, the heat index can be 130 degrees or higher, and that is a prescription for heat stroke with continued exposure.
For people who must work out in the heat, here are a few tips based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Limit the most strenuous outdoor activity to morning and evening hours when temperatures are cooler.
- Drink two to four glasses of cool, nonalcoholic fluids every hour. A sports beverage can replace salt and minerals that are lost in sweat, but workers on a low-salt diet should talk to their physician first. Doctors should also be consulted if they have limited the amount of fluid you drink or have you on water pills. Liquids containing caffeine, alcohol or large amounts of sugar should be avoided because they can actually cause the body to lose more fluid. Very cold drinks can cause stomach cramps.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, such as cotton. Take frequent breaks in cooler shady areas; if an air-conditioned space is available, that’s an even better place for a short break.
- For sun protection, wear a wide-brimmed hat, if possible, and sunglasses, and apply a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher. The most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels.
- Workers taking certain medications or those who have a physical illness, especially heart disease or high blood pressure, may run an increased risk of succumbing to the heat.
If a worker appears to be suffering from heat exhaustion, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends moving them to a cool, shaded area to rest. If symptoms include dizziness or lightheadness, the victim should lie on their back with the legs raised 6 to 8 inches. If symptoms include nausea, the victims should lie on their side.
Loosen and remove any heavy clothing, have the person drink cool water unless they are sick to the stomach, and cool them down by fanning and spraying with a cool mist of water or applying a wet cloth to their skin. Call 911 if the person does not feel better in a few minutes.
For “Protecting Yourself in the Sun,” a two-page publication with suggestions to protect employees from harmful radiation, click here. For a Spanish version, click here.
For a “Heat Stress Card” with information on heat stress symptoms and first-aid techniques, click here. For Spanish, click here.
For more information, e-mail George Middleton at NAHB, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8590.
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