Outdoor work can be physically demanding, especially in extreme weather conditions such as scorching hot temperatures during the summer months. As employers, it is important to educate employees regarding working in the sun safely, and how to identify early symptoms of heat stress. By understanding the risks of working in extreme temperatures, both employers and employees can better manage potential health hazards and lessen the chances of falling ill.
In preparation for working outdoors in the summer, we have included actionable tips to help you mitigate heat stress for your employees and ways to prevent the onset of any heat-related illnesses in the workplace.
How To Stay Safe When Working in Direct Sunlight
Every year, thousands of workers become sick due to occupational heat exposure, and some cases are even fatal. But heat stress is preventable. By taking precautionary actions and providing support, employers can make sure that employees’ well-being is prioritized in harsh working conditions.
Take Frequent Breaks
Staying in the sun for an extended period of time can not only damage workers’ skin and cause skin cancer, but can also result in them overheating and developing heat-related illnesses. To prevent heat stress from occurring, it’s important that employers allow workers to take frequent breaks with access to shade where they can recharge. In addition, employers can schedule the most strenuous work at cooler times of the day, such as the morning, so employees won’t have to overexert themselves in the afternoon sun.
Use Sufficient Sunscreen to Protect Skin
According to EHS Today, 82% of outdoor workers do not apply sunscreen at work, which puts them at a higher risk of developing skin ailments related to increased sun exposure. Over 70% of workers say their employers do not provide sunscreen for them to use.
Providing and encouraging employees to wear sunscreen while working in the sun not only helps create a safer workplace but also minimizes the chances of occupational illness. In addition, proper education can bring awareness to employees regarding the consequences of prolonged UV radiation exposure and inadequate sun protection.
Drink Lots of Fluids to Stay Hydrated
The average human being has around 2 million to 5 million sweat glands that activate when the body needs to cool down. To reduce body temperature, sweat evaporates from the skin to allow for heat loss, while also taking away water and electrolytes from the body. When the body is dehydrated, important bodily functions start to slow down and heat stress occurs.
To help prevent dehydration, employers should provide reusable water bottles and place cool water stations across the worksite to allow employees to refill their water bottles throughout the workday. Employers should also highlight the importance of hydration in safety seminars and training.
Avoid Intaking Excessive Caffeine
Though workers can oftentimes experience increased alertness and higher performance levels after consuming beverages containing caffeine, it can also result in a higher risk of heat stress during the hot summer days. Since caffeine increases urination, vital fluids and essential minerals are lost much quicker throughout the day and will need to be replenished more often to stay hydrated.
Informing employees of the dangers of consuming excessive caffeine before or during work can help prevent illness, as well as providing workers with alternative beverages such as water or drinks with electrolytes.
Cover Up with Sun-Protective Clothing
Working long hours underneath the harsh sunlight can be extremely damaging to the skin. While most clothing offers some form of protection against UV rays, sun-protective clothing is designed with special fabric to block out harmful UV radiation. Apart from sun-protective clothing, employers should also encourage the use of sunglasses and sun shade hats.
Symptoms of Heat Stress Every Worker and Employer Should Know
Heat stress occurs when the body experiences difficulty getting rid of excess heat. When this happens, both the body’s core temperature and heart rate begin to rise. When left untreated, heat stress can result in distress and even death.
In the United States, 11 labor workers are either severely injured or die from heat stress every day. Therefore, employers and employees should both learn to recognize the symptoms of heat stress in order to quickly take appropriate action if it should occur in the workplace.
Lack of Alertness
As body temperature increases, the individual may begin to lose concentration and experience difficulty focusing on a task. If you realize an employee is taking longer than usual to complete a job duty and is making more mistakes throughout the workday, it could be a symptom of heat stress.
Dizziness or Fainting
Overheating of the body causes an increased blood flow to the skin and the legs, which can result in a sudden drop in blood pressure. As blood flow to the brain is reduced, the individual may start experiencing light-headedness or dizziness before fainting occurs.
Racing Heart Rate
Being in a hot and humid environment can cause the cardiovascular system to ramp up its effort to get rid of excess heat in the body. As the heart pumps faster, more strain is put on the heart, and the risk of suffering from cardiovascular problems also increases.
Excessive sweating is a noticeable symptom of heat stress. As an individual overheats, the body pumps up to 48% of blood to the surface of the skin in an effort to cool the body down with sweat. This can quickly lead to the excessive loss of water and minerals from the body and exacerbate dehydration.
Sudden Fatigue and Nausea
When the body becomes dehydrated to the point that it can no longer cool itself down by sweating, the body temperature can rise so high that the person might feel sudden fatigue and nausea. If an employee begins to experience these symptoms while working in the sun, they may be suffering from heat stress.
It can sometimes be difficult to recognize heat stress in the workplace, so it is especially important to pay extra attention to employees’ behavior and well-being during hot workdays. During extreme weather conditions, employers should also be more flexible when it comes to employee performance and provide relief and assistance when needed.
If you sense that an employee is experiencing symptoms of heat stress, immediately move them to a shaded area and provide them with cool water and air. If their symptoms aren’t relieved within an hour, call 9-1-1 or head to the nearest emergency room.
Fast Facts about Heat Stress in the Workplace
In hot and humid conditions, outdoor workers tend to expend a larger amount of physical energy in order to complete their usual tasks. Without regular rest and water breaks, workers can quickly overheat and develop heat-related illnesses. This not only affects the well-being of employees, but can also result in reduced work productivity.
- Between 1992 and 2016, more than 780 workers in the U.S. died and over 69,000 workers suffered serious injuries due to working in the heat. (BLS)
- The number of working hours lost in the U.S. due to heat stress is expected to double between 1995 and 2030, from 0.11% to 0.21% of total working hours. The most affected industries are agriculture and construction, with an expected 1.18% of working hours lost due to heat stress in 2030 for both industries. (Statista)
- Estimates suggest that by 2030, when the global temperature is expected to have risen by about 2.34 degrees Fahrenheit, the number of total working hours lost to heat stress will rise to 2.2% — a productivity loss equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs, which equates to a global GDP of $2.4 billion. (ILO)
- Southern Asia and Western Africa are expected to be the geographic regions most affected by heat stress, with a predicted productivity loss in 2030 of 5.3% and 4.8%, respectively. (ILO)
- Workers are at greater risk of experiencing heat stress if they lose more than 1.5% of their body weight in a single day from sweating. (EHS)
- A study by NASA using telegraph key operators found that in temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the operators made five errors an hour and 19 mistakes after three hours. At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the operators made nine mistakes per hour and 27 after three hours. At 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the mistakes shot up to 60 per hour and 138 after three hours. (EHS Today)
- Another study found a 23% reduction in reaction time during a decision-making process as a result of a 4% body fluid loss during heat stress. (PubMed)