Don’t Lose Your Cool — Avoid Heat Stress, Know the Symptoms
Working outdoors in the heat of summer is part and parcel of the construction industry. Heat and humidity combined with the internal heat generated by physical labor can lead to serious illness and, in extreme cases, fatalities.
But heat-related illnesses are preventable. Work or play, be prepared for the hot weather and know what to do if you or someone you are with shows signs of suffering the adverse effects of overexposure to the elements needs to be in everyone’s toolbox.
What is heat stress?
Basically, it is your body’s failure to cool itself. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Heat-related illnesses occur when the body is not able to lose enough heat to balance the heat generated by physical work and external heat sources.” The heart pumps faster, blood is diverted from internal organs to the skin, breathing rate and sweating increases. When the body’s defense mechanisms fail, a person can suffer any of a number of maladies.
Heat-related issues can range from a heat rash or sunburn up to their most serious forms—heat exhaustion, primarily caused by dehydration, and heatstroke, which can be fatal. It is extremely important to take steps to avoid heat stress and to know the symptoms, to ensure you take appropriate action should they arise.
How to spot extreme heat-related illness
Recognizing warning signs and taking quick action can make a difference in preventing life-threatening illness.
– Heatstroke warning signs include dry, very hot skin with no sweating; fast, strong pulse; a headache, mental confusion, dizziness or loss of consciousness; seizures, convulsions and/or nausea.
What to do: Call 911 immediately; heatstroke is a medical emergency. Do not give the person anything to drink. Move the person to a cooler place and use cool clothes to help lower their temperature.
– Heat exhaustion symptoms include heavy sweating; cold, pale, clammy skin; fast, weak pulse; muscle cramps; a headache; feeling tired, weak, lightheaded and/or dizzy; fainting; mood changes, such as irritability or confusion; nausea.
What to do: Sipping water is okay, move to a cooler place, loosen clothing and use cool, wet cloths to help lower body temperature. Get medical help if the person is vomiting, symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour.
Beat the heat
Outdoor workers are among the groups at greatest risk for heat-related illness. It takes one to two weeks for the body to build up a tolerance to the heat. Be smart and take the necessary precautions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer the following advice when working or recreating outdoors in the summer heat:
- Avoid dehydration—drink plenty of water before you are thirsty; about eight ounces every 15 minutes (on a very warm day, you can lose as much as two liters of fluid)
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugar-filled drinks (they make the body lose water and increase the chance of dehydration)
- Wear sunscreen and reapply according to directions; as possible, avoid direct sunlight or other heat sources
- Wear a brimmed hat and loose, lightweight, light-colored breathable (but tightly woven) clothing that protects from the sun (e.g., cotton)
- Take frequent short breaks in cool, shaded areas
- Eat smaller meals before work activity
- Plan ahead—tackle more strenuous jobs in the cooler morning hours
- Find out from your healthcare provider if your medications and heat don’t mix
- Ignore symptoms of heat stress!
A few words about sunscreen
Wear it! Each day, 8,500 people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer, yet the Harris Poll found that just 18 percent of outdoor workers always wear sunscreen at work, even though an SPF of at least 15 will block 93 percent of ultraviolet rays. To minimize the risks of sun exposure, Miller-Valentine Group supplies its crews with sunblock packets, so they can apply, and reapply, sunscreen throughout their workday.
Working in the heat can be dangerous and cause several illnesses ranging from heat rash and sunburn to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Heat exhaustion, primarily caused by dehydration due to high humidity and hard work can lead to heatstroke if not immediately addressed. Make sure you, your friends and co-workers know the warning signs and take the steps to prevent heat illness.