Sometimes summer’s sweltering heat can seem unbearable. Nevertheless, electricians and lineworkers still must work outdoors. That’s why it is imperative to understand the dangers of heat stress and how to avoid heat-related injuries and illnesses.
The average temperature of the human body is 98.6°F. Changes by even a few degrees can result in serious harm. Working in high temperatures or humid conditions can greatly increase the risk of such a change.
Heat stroke is the most dangerous of all heat-related injuries. When it occurs, the body loses its ability to regulate its own temperature. Symptoms of heat stroke include the inability to sweat, skin that is dry and hot, mental confusion or delirium, convulsions, loss of consciousness, falling into a coma and even death. In the event that a worker exhibits these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. When waiting for medical personnel to arrive, the impacted worker should move to a cooler place and have their clothing soaked with cool water. Additionally, the impacted worker should take small sips of water and sit in front of a fan (if available) or have colleagues fan them vigorously.
Heat exhaustion is caused by exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include clammy, moist skin and a pale complexion. These indicators may also be accompanied by extreme fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, giddiness and even fainting. Heat exhaustion can be treated in the same manner as heat stroke and by drinking beverages with electrolytes.
Fainting may also occur with prolonged exposure to a hot environment. This happens most often when workers are standing still for extended periods. Victims usually recover from fainting after a period of lying down.
A less severe condition that workers may experience when working in hot temperatures are heat cramps, which are muscle spasms caused by dehydration. They usually occur in the calf muscles. Workers that experience frequent heat cramps should consult a doctor to determine the best way to treat them.
Heat rash occurs when wet or moist clothing rubs against the skin, causing irritation. Heat rash can be prevented by resting in a cool place and allowing sweat to dry.
Prolonged exposure to the sun can result in sunburn, which can be painful and cause short- and long-term health complications. Workers should be familiar with the symptoms, treatments, health conditions and preventive measures. Although it can occur year-round, workers are most at risk for sunburn during the summer months between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Symptoms of sunburn begin to identify themselves about four hours after sun exposure and worsen within 24–36 hours. Some common symptoms of sunburn include red, warm, swollen and tender skin; blistering; headache; fever; nausea; and fatigue. Pain is usually worse 6–48 hours after sun exposure. Symptoms typically will last three to five days, and sometimes the skin will peel.
While there is no quick fix for sunburn, symptoms can be treated with aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and headaches while reducing fever. If workers experience sunburn, they should drink plenty of fluids because sunburn increases the risk of dehydration. Taking cool baths and applying aloe vera or soothing over-the-counter creams can also be helpful.
In addition to the skin, eyes can get burned from sun exposure. Sunburned eyes may become red, dry, painful and feel gritty. Workers should wear hats or UV-blocking sunglasses to protect their eyes.
Repetitive overexposure to the sun can also result in premature wrinkling, aging of the skin, age spots and an increased risk of skin cancer.
Tactics to prevent heat-related injuries and illnesses include wearing a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen; wearing light-colored and moisture-wicking clothing; drinking plenty of fluids; and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and very cold drinks. Caffeine and alcohol can cause dehydration, and cold drinks can cause stomach cramps.
Additionally, to avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion/stroke, employers should provide frequent breaks, water and other hydrating drinks when employees are working in hot and humid environments. Employers should also adjust work hours according to environmental work conditions such as with a high heat index or humidity. When hot temperatures are predicted, employers should consider changing work hours to a time of day with lower heat and humidity.