(My Administrator nixed a much sassier title.)
Hot weather can be anywhere from welcome, to uncomfortable, to dangerous. The CDC reports that extreme heat is more deadly than all other weather-related illnesses combined. This is as true for workers as it is for Alaskans sunbathing in the Caribbean (summer daytime temperatures in Alaska range from 55° – 70° F). Seriously though, acclimation is a thing, see below.
We’ll focus on the workers today.
Let’s talk about prevention and solutions first, in case you lose interest…
1. Education (i.e. learn and teach, good thing you are reading this)
2. Plan (i.e. include details for this risk in your Emergency Action Plan [EAP] and know your responsibilities, be ready, understand the risk factors. To this effect, our awesome “Loss Control Specialist” at Victory Insurance has this to offer to get your team up to speed)
3. Understand the Symptoms (i.e. employee looks hot-as-you-know-what, is feeling weak and confused, and left her water bottle at home)
4. Be Proactive (i.e. before it gets bad make sure you are drinking lots of water and taking appropriate breaks. We’re talking ≥85°F and you need to be getting serious about preventative steps. If you do this, you won’t need any of the following.) Got it? Stick with me here.
SOLUTIONS (in case you did not follow the “Be Proactive” step above):
1. Water (or hydration drinks that are supplemented with sugar and salt)
2. Shade (natural or man-made, just figure it out)
3. Rest (give the poor girl a break already)
4. First Aid (see your EAP or contact an emergency department).
The CDC has this all figured out folks. If you need guidelines, by all means use the guidelines. NIOSH publishes recommended occupational exposure limits, so no excuses. Still with me? Aren’t you something!
THE ILLNESSES (how to spot them & what to do):
HEAT RASH is caused by your sweat glands being blocked. This is the least of your worries.
* What to do? Cool down and keep the area dry. You can use powders but don’t use ointments or creams (= moisture), oh and don’t scratch it.
SUNBURNS sound simple enough, but they can be serious. They’re also seriously easy to avoid.
*What to do? Shade; appropriate clothing (light-weight and light colors that cover as much skin as possible, and hats with brims); LOTS of SPF sunscreen, applied often throughout the day (wanna know more about SPF?).
DEHYDRATION means you are either A.) not drinking enough fluids (coffee and alcohol don’t count), B.) sweating a lot (welcome to my world), or C.) All of the above.
*What to do? DRINK SOMETHING. Water is best, specific drinks for hydration are ok too. You should take small sips, especially if you are really dehydrated.
FAINTING can be caused by dehydration or be a symptom of a bigger problem, like heat stress or stroke. It’s pretty easy to identify.
*What to do? Lay the person flat on their back in a cool place, raise their legs above their heart, and be sure all clothing is loose. Now, if the person injured themselves in the fall you may need to implement other First Aid measures before attempting to lift their legs, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post (when in doubt call 911).
HEAT STRESS (including heat exhaustion and heat cramps) can be a precursors to really, really serious problems, so don’t ignore the initial symptoms. Symptoms include: muscle cramping; feeling weak; nausea; skin that is cold (you know something isn’t right now!), pale, and clammy; headache; and fainting.
*What to do? Get to a cool, shady spot ASAP. Sip water and alert a colleague or supervisor.
HEAT STROKE. If you suspect heatstroke in yourself or someone else, stop reading this blog and call 911 immediately. Look for: significant confusion and agitation, nausea, headache, dizziness, muscle weakness, signs of dehydration, a rapid pulse, and shallow breathing.
*What to do (after you call 911)? Get the strokee to a cool place, with an ice pack if possible, give them water or something to sip (not chug), and stay with them.
OTHER STUFF to look out for: high heart rate, lower blood pressure, and confusion. These can be problematic in and of themselves, but also can indicate a much bigger problem. Use your common sense and don’t be a martyr. Heat can also cause other safety concerns for workers (and sunbathers) including the increased chance of injuries due to: sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness leading to falls, etc.
What can employees (and their employers) do?
ACCLIMATION MATTERS. Does this employee have at least 2 weeks of experience in this job in this climate? Take into account any time you may have taken off recently in the A/C, or Alaska, or wherever. If not, you need to acclimate before you will be able to operate at the same capacity as your co-workers. Even if you are awesome.
FASHION MATTERS. What you wear can mitigate or exacerbate heat-related illnesses. DO wear light-weight, light colored, and natural fibers. Hats with brims are also good for sun protection.
WEATHER MATTERS. Don’t just ask Alexa what the temperature is today. You need to know the WBGT (wet bulb globe temperature, duh). Keep in mind humidity, winds, and how directly the sun, or other heat source, is radiating down (blue skies today?). Do not underestimate humidity. Sweating is how you release heat from your body. When it’s humid, sweating is less effective.
Outdoor workers (particularly when they are working in remote areas where access to medical services is limited) such as firefighters, farmers, and construction workers.
Also those in hot indoor environments like kitchens, mines, boiler rooms, green houses, and factories (just to name a few) should be well educated about how to stay safe in the heat.
Other risk factors include: being pregnant, 65 years of age or older, and/or obese.
Those with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, high blood pressure, or who take certain medications (also, illicit drugs) should take extra precautions. Let your colleagues and supervisors know if you feel you may be at a higher risk (and illicit drugs are always a bad idea at work).
If you are like us office dwellers, your biggest concern is likely an argument about exactly how much A/C is too much A/C (that never happens here, of course).
Congratulations! You read the whole post and now know more about how to stay safe in the heat than the majority of Americans.
*Disclaimer* I work for a doctor, I am not a doctor. If you want to learn more about this serious issue you should probably discuss it with a real doctor.