May 17, 2015
The public best knows cases of heat stress when they are fatal. These devastating stories are publicized and remind us to watch our exertion in the hot sun and monitor our fluid intake. Heat stress, however, can appear in several forms and from a number of conditions working indoors as well. Overheating that isn’t fatal is still dangerous, and even mild cases can disrupt work and health.
Working Conditions and Heat Stress: Risk Factors Both Indoors and Out
Physical exertion in a hot environment is the culprit for heat stress, but there are a number of factors that can create a hot environment. Machinery, tools, and appliances can raise the temperature in a work environment. Wearing heavy or thick protective gear raises the body temperature. Poorly ventilated areas and equipment also contribute to dangerous working temperatures. What constitutes a “hot” working temperature depends on the nature of the job. Highly physical labor with few breaks may surpass safe temperatures at 78 degrees. Less physical labor with many breaks may be safely performed in temperatures up to 90 degrees. Food canneries, laundries, manufacturing plants, and restaurants are all indoor work environments that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health list as susceptible to extreme heat. This is definitely not a risk that is exclusive to roofers and construction workers laboring under the hot sun all day.
Additional risk factors to heat stress come from individual health and responsibility. Specific factors like age and heart conditions may increase a person’s susceptibility to overheating. In general, fluid and calorie intake along with rest are vital components to a healthy work environment. These precautions are not only the responsibility of the employee, but also the employer who can either offer or force sufficient breaks in work. Avoiding heat stress involves some very simple guidelines in most cases, and ignoring them can cause the body to shut down rather quickly.
There are several forms of overheating, and the most destructive come with warning signs. A mild case of heat stress comes in the form of a heat rash. These uncomfortable red pustules are found in creases and body spaces where sweat pools. They are easy to treat, but can be very distracting as they’re exacerbated by sweating. A more dangerous form of heat stress is heat fatigue, or the body simply not cooling down quickly enough. Symptoms may be headaches and tiring more quickly than an activity should cause. It impairs work performance and can lead to a more serious condition if left untreated. Heavy labor in a hot environment can cause heat cramps, which are sharp pains in the muscles. Heat cramps indicate immediate attention to fluid and electrolyte levels and require monitoring of pulse and blood pressure. If strenuous activity in a hot environment without enough fluid intake leads to loss of sodium, the body may be unable to regulate body temperature. This leads to heat exhaustion. Signs and symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, fast and shallow breathing, nausea, and fainting amongst others. Immediate attention is required as heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most dangerous form of heat stress. This occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees because it is unable to regulate temperature. Some symptoms include slurred speech, hallucinations, convulsions, dry skin, confused behavior, and loss of consciousness. This is a medical emergency, as it can lead to permanent disability or death.
The milder forms of heat stress are still extremely dangerous, as the symptoms cause fatigue and distraction. Anyone using sharp or heavy tools or equipment when heat stress occurs can potentially cause major accidents. No matter the degree, overheating on the job is as important a concern as any other safety or ergonomic issue. The most dangerous risks are those that are unknown or ignored. Indoor and outdoor working conditions need equal attention to safety when it comes to temperature, ventilation, breaks, and fluid intake.