by Janet L. Keyes, CIH and Carol A. Keyes, CSP
Buffalo, New York is no more tropical than St. Paul, Minnesota. It isn’t a place where you think people will die from heat.
But a 35-year-old man died from heat exposure just two years ago. He had just started a job as a laborer, working for a subcontractor installing guardrails on a state bridge. Because he was new at the job, his foreman gave him an easy job – sorting bolts and nuts into five-gallon buckets, then delivering them to the folks installing the guardrails. But it was hot, with temperatures reaching 95F, relative humidity of 31 percent, little wind and sunny. And he was a diligent worker, not taking breaks and not taking the time to get the water he left in his car, at the other side of the bridge.
Didn’t he know better? Why did he allow himself to get into such a bad state?
That’s the scary part of heat stress and heat stroke – people don’t realize how dangerous a situation it is. Victims don’t know that they might be close to death. This man worked quietly alone, with no one paying attention to him – until he collapsed.
OSHA fined the company a paltry sum, $7,557. More critically, the company began taking heat seriously. They trained their employees and developed an acclimatization program.
Your employees don’t work outside. But are they in cars that have been sitting outside? Cars act like greenhouses. According to the National Weather Service, the temperature inside a car can go up by 40F in only 60 minutes, with most of that rise in the first 30 minutes. If it’s 90F outside, it could be over 130F in the car! Employees may not be in the vehicle for long, but doing that repeatedly can take its toll.
Is your shop air-conditioned? The offices probably are. Ironic, as people sitting at desks or standing at counters are less at risk of heat stress than a painter wearing a spray suit or a mechanic struggling to loosen a recalcitrant nut. They may not have the sun beating down on them, but they can still be exposed to too much heat.
Outside of the torrid weather, three factors led to the Buffalo man’s death. He was new to the job. He didn’t drink enough water. And no one – not the employee, not his coworkers, not his supervisor – paid attention to the distress he was feeling.
The circumstances aren’t uncommon. Most heat-related fatalities occur when temperatures get into the 90F range. And most occur in new workers, regardless of age. It takes time, about two weeks of gradually increasing exposure, to acclimate to heat. That isn’t just getting used to heat. Once people become acclimated, their bodies become better at cooling. They sweat more and begin sweating sooner, but don’t lose as much salt when they sweat. A new employee who dives into the job isn’t acclimated – that person cannot safely keep up with those who have adjusted to heat.
People won’t lose acclimatization if they take a weekend off. But if they spend two weeks in northern Canada when it’s hot here, they will lose much of their heat tolerance. They will regain it quicker, though.
Acclimatization allows workers to do their job normally when the weather is hot. But we have the challenge of sporadic hot days, so people don’t have much chance to acclimate.
It is logical, but wrong, to rely on thirst to know if you need to drink water. People who are dehydrated will be thirsty. But people who are dehydrated are at greater risk of heat illness. Waiting until people are thirsty (and already dehydrated) is a bad practice, because thirst isn’t a good indicator of the body’s need for water. On those hot days, encourage workers to drink. And make it easy to do so, by having water or sports drinks readily available. Freezer pops, especially those that have electrolytes, can help as well.
Water is so boring to drink, though! It’s still consistently been found to be one of the best choices for hot weather. Flavored sports drinks contain electrolytes, which can stimulate thirst and help keep the sodium balance in your body, and carbohydrates, which help your body take up sodium. But they may also contain a lot of sugar. And you’ll find electrolytes and carbohydrates in food. The Korey Stringer Institute, which focuses on athletes’ exposure to heat, recommends using water for exercise sessions of less than an hour and sports drinks for prolonged exertion.
Be alert for the signs of heat illness. Heat rash isn’t particularly bad – it’s just an itchy skin rash where the sweat can’t evaporate. Heat cramps, usually caused by too little salt, can cause muscle spasms and pain. If a worker tries to power through a heat cramp, muscle damage can develop. Better to take a break, massage the muscle and replace those electrolytes. Much more serious: heat exhaustion, characterized by heavy sweating, headaches, nausea, and dizziness. If any worker is experiencing that, get them to a cool area to rest and to drink water or, better yet, electrolyte replacement drinks. Monitor their condition, in case it turns into the most dangerous heat illness, heat stroke.
Heat stroke kills. Someone suffering from heat stroke is no longer able to cool down. Their body temperature is going up. They may be acting strangely. Their skin will be hot and flushed. This is a medical emergency – they need to be cooled immediately and you need to call 911. The scariest part about heat stroke is that people suffering from it may not realize they are in danger.
On those hot days, monitor your workers’ condition and encourage coworkers to keep an eye on each other. Allow more breaks. Set up cooling fans. Provide cool beverages and encourage employees to drink. And if anyone is showing signs of heat stress, take action right away, before it becomes serious. Time in an air-conditioned room, drinking water, and using cold compresses will usually be enough to resolve heat illness.
Want more? Check out the July 2022 issue of AASP-MN News!