As we near the end of one of the hottest summers on record, employers must continue to protect employees from heat-related work episodes. We are not just talking about June, July and August anymore. Depending on the geographical area, there are high-temperature work environments in April and May, and as late as October. These temperature issues force us to look at ways to get the job done safely and as expeditiously as is practical.
It shouldn’t take a state or federal law to make us look at alternative work methods. Since late 2022, the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration has had a National Emphasis Program on Outdoor and Indoor Heat-Related Hazards. OSHA has many resources on its website to assist in developing a heat stress program.
What can we do?
What can we do to lower the chances of heat affecting our workforce? In the electrical industry, the OSHA requirement for properly wearing flame-resistant and arc-rated clothing (with sleeves rolled down and shirts buttoned up and tucked in) adds to the need to address alternative work practices during hot weather.
There is a vast difference between outside and inside work when controlling heat exposure. Since line contractors’ work is outside, leaders need to consider, for example, altering shift start and stop times; providing adequate fluids such as water and sports drinks with electrolytes, which assist the body in recovering from heat exposure; and providing frequent breaks and shade during hot days. Educating employees in recognizing heat-related symptoms is critical in developing a heat stress program. Let’s look at a few heat disorders and their symptoms.
Types of illnesses
Heat stroke: This is the most serious and occurs when the body temperature rises to critical levels. Some primary signs and symptoms are confusion; irrational behavior; lack of sweating (usually); hot, dry skin; and an abnormally high body temperature. There can also be loss of consciousness and convulsions. If a worker exhibits any of these signs, seek medical attention immediately while placing the worker in a shaded area, providing liquids, removing outer clothing and wetting the skin. When dealing with a heat stroke victim, it’s important to ensure that the person is not left unattended, either by a medical professional or another worker, until they are evaluated and processed.
Heat exhaustion: A potential victim will have symptoms such as headache, nausea, vertigo, weakness, thirst and giddiness. Luckily, this illness responds quickly to treatment. Make sure you move the person to a cool, shaded place, if possible, and provide liquids. Ice packs are also helpful to help cool the body down to a normal temperature. While heat exhaustion is more receptive to a quicker comeback than heat stroke, it should in no way be treated lightly, because it can be just as serious if left untreated.
Heat cramps: Heat cramps—caused by the loss of electrolytes during excessive sweating—are the most prevalent in workers performing physical labor in hot environments. The lack of water replacement causes an excess buildup of salt in the body, resulting in muscle cramps. Rebalancing the body’s internal function is essential for good health. Gone are the days when you gave a worker a handful of salt tablets to take with plenty of water to remain cramp-free. Now with sports drinks to replenish electrolytes, we can maintain a normal balance while providing needed nutrients.
These are just a few of the disorders associated with exposure to high-heat environments. While we have looked at the physical effects of incidents relating to heat illnesses and how to treat them, we should also focus on what can prevent them. Look at altering start and stop times, providing adequate break time and shade if possible and giving workers enough liquids, including water and sports drinks, to ensure the workforce is getting what they need to prevent heat exposure issues while in the field.
Header image: Getty Images / Orawan Wongka