Wes (a good friend of mine) and I were inspecting a vessel to make sure it was safe for entry. We had to climb ladders from level to level, and it was August on the Texas Gulf Coast, so it was hot and humid. We were acclimated to the heat because we were out in it daily. We were aware of the problems that could occur when working in the heat; we had actually presented classes on the subject.

As we got to the top of a ladder, Wes leaned on the rail as if he was going to be sick to his stomach. I asked him if he was OK, and he started to pass out. As I helped him lay down, I noticed that his skin was dry and that he was pale. I immediately called for help. Luckily, we were working for a large chemical plant with an onsite emergency team that responded and rushed Wes to the hospital. At the hospital, he was immediately given an IV of electrolytes. Wes recovered, but the incident gave us both a new respect for the hazards of heat stroke.

Growing up, I always considered being hot as a sign that I was working hard. The association of being hot and hard work is just one of many reasons that people tend to get overheated before taking a break and cooling off. Heat stress can sneak up on you. Heat-related illness can be fatal. If you aren’t alert to the warnings, you could be at risk of a heat-related illness.

Warnings & risk factors

It isn’t uncommon for people to simply feel hot and uncomfortable while doing tasks when it is hot. You might also feel tired and have a loss of appetite. These are mild signs of heat-related illness. Other, more serious signs require medical attention. They are:
  • irregular breathing or heartbeat
  • headache
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • not sweating and dry skin
  • cramping
  • feeling weak
  • being disoriented.

Employees who work in high heat areas are at an increased risk for heat-related health issues and need to be given additional training. Other factors that can place a person at higher risk include:
  • using alcoholic beverages
  • recently donating blood
  • overachiever — the gung-ho individual who will keep working until he or she drops
  • poor physical condition, including being overweight or having respiratory problems
  • not acclimated to the environment (worker might have just been transferred into a furnace area or might be new to that part of the country).

Focus on prevention

While it is important to train on treatment of heat-related injuries, it is much more productive to train on prevention. During my early years in safety, I found that when I worked on heat-related issues, I was focused on the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stress and how to treat the patient. As I mentioned, it is good to know treatment, but if you focus on prevention, you might not have to utilize the treatment techniques.

Heat should be an easy hazard to identify, but because it is taken for granted, it is often overlooked. It is a challenge to get employees to recognize heat hazards at work when they may have been at the beach over the weekend enjoying the heat.

As summer months approach it is important to keep your workforce aware of the hazards of heat. In addition to training, other ideas for raising awareness include five-minute tailgate safety talks and pamphlets sent home focusing on heat off the job.

Safety committee members can be a valuable resource to keep their workgroups actively working together to reduce the risk of heat in the workplace. Employees should be made aware of key issues such as:

Keep the air moving:Anything that keeps the air moving — air circulation, fans, cross drafts — helps prevent heat-related problems.

Sweating:Make sure that employees understand that sweating is the body’s most effective cooling mechanism. When we stop sweating is when problems may occur.

The sun:If your employees have to work outside make every effort to provide areas out of the direct sunlight.

Stay hydrated:Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t think you are thirsty. Avoid consuming caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate.

The hazards of heat in the workplace can be reduced through a well-planned program that focuses on prevention.

Sidebar: Hot Spots

In addition to working in hot weather, workers must be alert to other sources of heat in the workplace. According to OSHA, operations involving high air temperatures, radiant heat sources, high humidity, direct physical contact with hot objects or strenuous physical activities have a high potential for inducing heat stress in employees engaged in such operations. Such places include:
  • iron and steel foundries
  • nonferrous foundries
  • brick-firing and ceramic plants
  • glass products facilities
  • rubber products factories
  • laundries
  • electrical utilities (particularly boiler rooms)
  • bakeries, confectioneries, commercial kitchens
  • food canneries
  • chemical plants
  • mining sites
  • smelters
  • steam tunnels