As record-setting summer heat continues to usher in higher-than-average temperatures across the US, it’s the time of year when workers are the most vulnerable to heat-related illness. In both indoor and outdoor work environments, elevated heat levels can overwhelm the body’s natural cooling mechanisms, leading to life-threatening conditions. The good news is that by taking proper precautions, heat-related illness and fatalities are completely avoidable. By knowing how the body deals with excess heat, recognizing the symptoms of heat stress, and learning how to keep your workers cooler you can take concrete steps to promote a workplace culture that puts safety at the forefront.
How the Body Cools Itself
The primary ways the human body cools itself is through sweating and circulating the blood up to the surface of the skin to cool it. When the outside temperature approaches the body’s internal temperature, circulating the blood as a means of cooling is no longer effective. Sweating, the body’s secondary method is only effective when the air is dry enough for the sweat to evaporate. In areas of high humidity like South Carolina, the air is often too moist to make sweating effective. When the body can’t cool itself and the internal temperature rises, symptoms like an inability to concentrate, increased heart rate, irritability, and loss of consciousness can result.
Outdoor Workers Are Vulnerable to Heat-Related Illnesses
You don’t have to be working outdoors to be exposed to higher-than-average levels of heat. Outdoor workers in construction or landscaping aren’t the only ones at risk. In fact, many indoor setting like warehouses or manufacturing plants can exceed safe temperatures quickly. For those working indoors, improving ventilation, installing fans, and air-conditioning as many spaces as possible can help to lower indoor temperatures.
For those working outdoors, providing shade, water misters, access to cold water, and frequent rest breaks can all provide much-needed relief. When new workers begin, allow them a period of time for their bodies to acclimate to working in higher temperatures. Spreading tasks that require a higher level of exertion evenly among a work crew keeps one or two people from bearing the brunt of the heat stress.
The dangers of heat-related illness are real for a large number of workers during the summer months. Sun-exposed jobs sites or poorly ventilated indoor work environments can quickly overwhelm the body’s ability to cool itself effectively. With proper planning, worker training, and modifications to the job site your workers can staff safe as the mercury starts to rise.