Employees in construction, landscaping, laundry, factory, farm or restaurant settings typically function in hot environments throughout the year. So do workers who wear heavy protective apparel on the job, which causes them to sweat and lose the necessary water that the body stores. In addition to health and safety concerns, multiple studies show that even mild thirst can decrease productivity at work by as much as 10 percent; and hand/eye coordination can weaken at just one percent dehydration. Therefore, it is essential to maintain proper hydration planning year round.
Know the warning signs
- Employees need to know when they are at risk for heat illness, which can progress from dehydration to heat exhaustion to heat stroke. Signs of dehydration are thirst and dry mouth, and can be corrected easily by drinking fluids with electrolyte solutions. Indicators of heat exhaustion include irritability, nausea, decreased coordination, cramps, chills and heat sensations on the head or neck. Heat stroke cases can result in loss of balance and muscle function; collapse, seizures and even coma. If you or someone you are working with begins to show any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.
- Urine color is another useful way of checking your hydration status in the workplace. When properly hydrated, urine should be pale yellow in color. Dark yellow urine is a telltale sign of dehydration.
- Give yourself the pinch test. Skin turgor, which is the skin’s ability to change shape and return to normal, is an easy way to check your hydration. Using your pointer finger and thumb, simply pinch the skin on the back of your hand and hold for a few seconds. When you let go, if the skin takes a while to return to its normal position, you may be dehydrated.
- Avoid caffeinated, carbonated, sugary beverages like soda. These drinks are diuretics and will cause you to urinate more, which can increase dehydration.
- Monitor how often you drink. By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated, so drink recommended fluids often (one cup every 15- 20 minutes).
- Once you are dehydrated, it’s difficult to make up for that lost hydration. Drink before, during and after physical labor to replace body fluid lost in sweating.
- Anticipate conditions that will increase the need for water, including high temperatures, humidity, protective clothing and difficulty of work. If possible, schedule heavy work during the coolest parts of the day.
- If possible, wear light-colored, breathable clothing that allows sweat evaporation, which can help keep your body temperature down. Replace sweat-saturated clothing with dry clothing as soon as you can. Cooling vests with pockets for cold packs may also be beneficial.
- Include fruit in your lunch or snack break, as it can be a great source of both electrolytes and fluids. Bananas and dates have high levels of the electrolyte potassium, making them a great option for refueling. Watery fruits like cantaloupe, watermelon, pears, pineapple and grapefruit are more than 90 percent water.
- OSHA recommends the following fluid replacement protocol: Cool (50°-60°F) water or any cool liquid (except alcoholic beverages) should be made available to workers to encourage them to drink often. Place ample supplies of liquids close to the work area rather than relying on a water fountain to provide proper hydration.
- Electrolyte drinks should play an important part in any successful workplace hydration program. Several studies have provided evidence that people will drink more of a flavored drink than an unflavored one. Also, the electrolytes (sodium and potassium) in these drinks help to replace those lost in sweat and aid in avoiding heat cramps that can occur up to several hours after working. There is also evidence that consuming a drink with sodium in it stops your thirst mechanism from being switched off.
- Make hydration education an ongoing part of employee communications. Employers need to reinforce the importance of recognizing the signs of heat stress and provide measures to avoid dehydration. Display posters and provide information sheets to keep this top-of-mind with your employees. Continually mention the topic in company meetings.
- Encourage employees to monitor each other and continually remind coworkers to drink every 15-20 minutes.