Summer heat can be dangerous. Heat illness is a serious medical condition resulting from the body's inability to cope with a particular heat load. It is not a sign of weakness or frailty, and it can be a serious health risk even when the temperature is moderate. The most common heat-related illnesses are heatstroke, exhaustion, cramps and rash.
Any worker exposed to hot and humid conditions is at risk of heat illness. Some workers are at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions. These can include new workers, temporary workers or those returning to work after a week or more off. The industries most affected by heat-related illnesses are agriculture, construction, transportation, utilities and landscaping services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), crop workers are 20 times more likely to die of heatstroke than all other U.S. workers.
Common features of heat-related illnesses include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, faintness, nausea, headache, clammy skin and rapid pulse. Heatstroke may cause serious symptoms such as confusion, loss of consciousness, convulsions, coma and multiple organ damage.
Employers should establish a complete heat illness prevention program to mitigate heat illness. The program should include providing workers with water, rest and shade; and gradually increasing workloads and allowing more frequent breaks for new workers and workers who have been away for a week or more to allow them to build heat tolerance. Other preventative steps can include modifying work schedules, planning in advance for emergencies, and training employees about the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them. In addition, workers should continuously be monitored for signs of illness.
Here are some steps to prevent heat-related illnesses and fatalities:
- Drink water every 15 minutes, even if you are not thirsty.
- Rest in the shade to cool down.
- Wear a hat and light-colored clothing.
- Learn the signs of heat illness and what to do in an emergency.
- Keep an eye on fellow workers.
- Take it easy on your first days in the heat so your body can become acclimated.
Employees who are new to working in the heat or returning to work from an extended leave should have a work schedule that allows them to gradually get used to the heat. The same is true for all workers on the first hot day or during a heat wave.
Remember: water, rest and shade - taking these precautions can mean the difference between life and death.