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 Nature’s Safety Hazards

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Part 4 – The Hazards of HEAT STRESS

During the hot summer months, working in high temperatures can put tremendous stress on our bodies. Not only are there medical risks involved, statistics show that there is also a greater potential for accidents during periods of extremely hot weather conditions, or working in an extremely hot environment.

What is heat stress?
Under normal conditions, your body is able to “self-regulate” itself to maintain a body temperature of 98.6 degrees (Fahrenheit). When external factors such as excessive heat coupled with heavy exertion occur, your body tries to cope by speeding up its internal cooling process to maintain that 98.6 degrees. By sweating, your body is usually able to cool itself as the perspiration evaporates from your skin. But, for example, when the outside temperature or the temperature in the environment where you are working (i.e., a boiler room) approaches your body temperature, that internal body cooling process can be severely affected. Very high humidity can also adversely affect your body’s cooling process because perspiration may not evaporate quickly enough to cool you down when it is too hot, or very humid.

What are the most common affects of heat stress?
The three most severe heat stress disorders are:

  • Heat Cramps – The least serious of the heat stress disorders, these are painful and sometimes-severe muscle cramps of the larger muscle groups used while working or exerting yourself in extremely hot conditions. Sometimes however, these symptoms may not occur immediately, but rather may occur after you have finished the task at hand. The cause is usually due to sweating heavily and not replacing the water (and salt) that your body muscles need to function properly. The skin feels hot to the touch, and you may have a slightly higher temperature. Relief can usually be provided pretty quickly if you drink liquids containing some salt (at least .1%), and get yourself into a shaded area. If however, your muscle cramps are extremely painful and do not cease, it is best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
  • Heat Exhaustion – The next most serious condition resulting from heat stress, which can show a variety of different symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, intense thirst, fainting, severe headache, rapid breathing, or nausea. Often, heat cramps are a pre-cursor to heat exhaustion. The skin of the victim in this case will feel cool and clammy, and the victim may be very pale. The cause is excessive sweating and not replacing lost body fluids. It is extremely important to treat this disorder quickly by getting into a shaded or cooler area, and replacing lost fluids. Have the victim drink plenty of liquids (especially liquids containing salt). It may even help to loosen clothing, fan the victim or splash cold water on them (especially the neck and head area) in an attempt to provide relief by cooling him/her off as quickly as possible. Seek medical attention for heat exhaustion immediately.
  • Heatstroke – The most serious form of heat stress, and is considered to be a life-threatening condition. For that reason, if the symptoms of heat stroke are present, immediate emergency medical aid should be sought out . If the symptoms of heat cramps, and heat exhaustion as described above are not recognized and treated, a catastrophic breakdown in the body’s ability to regulate itself can occur. As the body depletes its water and salt reserves, sweating will cease, and the body’s ability to cool itself will cease. The body’s core temperature can then soar dramatically, even well over 100 degrees. The initial symptoms of heatstroke can be varied, such as an absence of sweating, hot red skin, a rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, severe headache, dizziness, confusion, extreme weakness, nausea or vomiting. Left untreated, more serious symptoms including death can result. While waiting for medical help, some immediate first aid measures include trying to lower the victim’s body temperature as quickly as possible . Get him/her into a shady or cooler environment. Immerse him/her in cold water if possible, or pour as much cool water on him/her as available. Massage their body with cold ice if possible. Provide plenty of drinking water if the person can drink it (i.e., the victim is still conscious, and or not vomiting).

How can I best prevent heat stress disorders?

Don’t overdue physical exertion during periods of extremely hot and/or humid conditions. Do not eat heavy or hot meals (these can divert your body’s attention from cooling itself to more of your energy resources going to the digestive system). Avoid dehydration by replenishing fluids lost by sweating as often as possible. Have plenty of cool drinking water available, and try to drink 6 to 12 ounces of liquid every 15 to 20 minutes or so during extremely hot or humid conditions. Do not drink alcoholic beverages, these dehydrate rather than hydrate the body. The normal diet usually contains enough salt, but sweating profusely for long periods of time can deplete your salt reserves. If this is the case, replenish your salt supply by drinking liquids containing at least .1% salt. Adding a little more salt to your daily diet when working in hot conditions may also help.

Most people can acclimate themselves to working in hot environments over time. The real problems may result however, when you are not used to it (i.e., sudden summertime heat waves). Wear clothing that lets your skin “breathe”, such as cotton or loose weave fabrics. Also, remember that light colors are best because they reflect the sun’s rays, while dark colors absorb. Wear a cap (or your hard hat) to keep the hot sun off your head and face. Take frequent breaks from strenuous activities during hot or humid weather, and take advantage of the shade whenever possible.

Learn to recognize the affects of all 3 of the most common heat stress disorders, and take the appropriate actions to prevent any of these symptoms from escalating.

OSHA also offers a variety of information and safety features relating to working in hot weather. The OSHA web site for this information can be accessed by clicking here.

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