The dangers of working in excessive heat and humidity often get overlooked. Yet OSHA reported 24 heat-related injuries or fatalities between May and October in 2018.
OSHA requires employers to provide safe work environments, although there are no specific OSHA standards that apply to heat and humidity in warehouses. Some individual states have created heat illness prevention standards that are more stringent.
Workplace safety is a team effort, and employees have a role to play, too. Report unsafe conditions to the appropriate person immediately. If the condition persists after you report it, you have the legal right to file an OSHA complaint and/or request an OSHA inspection.
Dangers of Working in Extreme Heat
Working in extreme heat and humidity is not just uncomfortable, but actually dangerous. Your body requires a stable internal temperature, which is regulated by blood circulation and the process of evaporation that cools you when you sweat.
High workplace temperatures keep you from releasing body heat through blood circulation, and if it’s humid, your sweat can’t evaporate because the air is already fairly full of water. This increases your core temperature.
Recognizing and Responding to Heat Illnesses
How do you recognize and respond to the various types of heat illness? There are four main types:
Heat Rash: Result of sweat that can’t evaporate. Clusters of tiny, itchy bumps cover affected areas, such as in folds of skin, on the chest, or on the neck. To treat: Keep the rash dry. Use baby or talcum powder to soothe the itching and irritation.
Heat Cramps: Painful muscle spasms from strenuous work in excessive heat, without replenishing fluids and body salts. To treat: Place person in cool environment/shade. Have them sip a sports drink or add one teaspoon of salt to a quart of water and sip. If alert and not disoriented, wet them down and place them in front of fan to induce evaporative cooling. Apply cold compresses to the back of the neck, groin and armpits. Gently, but firmly, massage cramped muscles.
Heat Exhaustion: Identified by profuse sweating with cool, moist, and red or pale skin. Dilated pupils, headache, fast but weak pulse, rapid breathing, dizziness, nausea, lightheadedness, irritability, irrational actions, thirst, and weakness may occur. Caused by prolonged exposure to excessive heat without consuming sufficient fluids and salts. To treat: Place the person in a cool environment/shade, with legs slightly elevated. Remove or loosen their clothes. Follow the treatments for heat cramps, except muscle massage.
Heat Stroke: Medical emergency – call 911 immediately! Core temperature is above 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweating stops entirely. Skin may be red, hot, and dry. Pulse is rapid but strong, pupils are small, and dizziness occurs. Breathing is rapid and shallow, together with nausea, weakness, mental confusion, and extreme irritability. There may be seizures, and loss of consciousness, progressing to shock, brain damage, and death. To treat: Follow the treatment procedures for heat exhaustion while you wait for medical transport or a medical care team to arrive. Do not give the person any drink that contains caffeine or alcohol.
Prevention of Heat Illness
Prevent heat illnesses by following some common sense heat tips to keep yourself cool. Wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting cotton clothing that allows sweat to evaporate. Stay in cooler environments as much as possible.
Drink small amounts frequently, even if you aren’t thirsty. Avoid sweet or alcoholic drinks, which cause your body to lose fluid.
Regularly replenish your salts and minerals. Consult with your doctor about managing the heat if you are on any type of salt restriction or have certain chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Heat illnesses can progress extremely rapidly from one stage to another. While you can monitor yourself for signs and symptoms, many stages of heat illness can cause mental confusion. A buddy system is the best way to ensure that you and your fellow workers aren’t headed for potential life-threatening circumstances. Periodically check in with each other and look for symptoms and take immediate action if you notice one or more symptoms.
About the Author: TJ Scimone founded Slice, Inc. in 2008. His priority has been design, innovation, and safety in cutting tools such as utility knives. The result is a unique line of tools featuring finger-friendly® blades. Safety is a key aspect of the Slice message and the website features a Workplace Safety Blog.