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The Dangers of Heat Stress

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on June 18, 2019 at 1:36 PM

It’s summertime, and that means you should be taking steps to ensure your workers are safe from the heat.

A bit of sweating is one thing. Heat stress is a serious medical situation. Here are the dangers of heat stress in the workplace and what you can do to keep your workers safe.

The Dangers of Heat Stress in the Workplace

How the Body Reacts to Heat

The human body is both incredibly durable and highly fragile.

When you’re exposed to heat, the body increases blood flow to the surface of your skin and by sweating. The sweat then evaporates off your skin, reducing your body temperature, and the blood closer to the surface of your skin loses heat as it gets further from your core.

The problem is that in extreme heat situations, your body can’t cool off fast enough to make up for the heat coming at it. This is especially true of those working in heat while wearing protective protective equipment (PPE) and clothing. Sweat evaporation is restricted by the protective clothing and the core temperature will rise if the body cannot cool fast enough. The fact that you’re creating heat due to work rate only makes matters worse.

As your core body temperature rises, your body increases your rate of sweating, creating dehydration. Dehydration, in turn, creates disorientation and cognitive impairment.

Your heart rate is also rising to try to force blood toward the surface of your skin. This also raises your core temperature (especially if you’re working in the meantime). If your core temperature rises too much, your deep body temperature will begin to rise. If left unchecked, the body’s control mechanism itself begins to fail.

Types of Heat Stress

Heat stress is what happens when your body is exposed to heat and cannot sufficiently cool down.

Heat stress can take many forms, including:

  • Heat exhaustion (when you lose too much water and salt through sweating)
  • Heat cramps (involuntary muscle spasms usually affecting workers who sweat a lot during physical activity)
  • Heat syncope (fainting episode or dizziness brought on by prolonged standing or sudden rising from a seated position)
  • Heat rash (skin irritation caused by excessive sweating)
  • Heat stroke (when the body is unable to control its own cooling mechanism and the body is unable to cool down)

Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency. When heat stroke sets in, the body temperature rises uncontrollably. It can get up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.

At this temperature, unless the body is cooled down, heat stroke can result in loss of consciousness, seizures, permanent brain damage and disability. Heat stroke is fatal if untreated. It takes effect fast, so you should call 911 at the first sign of heat stroke.

Ways to Prevent Heat Stress in the Workplace

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to keep your workers safe from heat stress. You should always try to schedule routine maintenance during cooler months to prevent prolonged exposure. Try to do maintenance in the morning or evening so that your workers aren’t exposed to the high noon heat.

If you can’t avoid the heat, you should acclimatize your workers to the heat gradually and reduce the physical demands placed on your workers. Make sure they have plenty of water on hand and that there’s a cool, shaded area for them to take breaks. You should also take the time to train your workers in heat safety procedures and what to do in an emergency situation.

Topics: Workplace Health and Safety, Safety Culture

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