Occupational Hazards: Heat Illness

This year has been the hottest on record, and the summer heat doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. While the heat may only be a slight nuisance for people with an office job, for outdoor workers in the construction and agriculture industry – it can be deadly. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2012, 31 outdoor workers died from heat illnesses and 4,120 workers fell ill. Over the past 10 years, the average has been 36 deaths and 2,810 heat-related illnesses per year.

Heat illness occurs when the body temperature rises to dangerous levels, resulting in anything from mild illnesses, such as heat cramps, to gravely serious illnesses like heat stroke, which requires immediate hospitalization. Though workers in the construction and agriculture industry cannot avoid working outside on hot days, there are a few ways to ensure their safety while on the job.

1. Stay hydrated
This seems like a no-brainer, however, workers need to drink water more often than they’d think. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, workers should drink a cup of water every 15 minutes, even if they aren’t thirsty.

2. Wear the right clothes
To stay cool, outdoor workers should wear loose, light colored clothing made of cotton and wide-brimmed hats. The hat will offer additional protection from the sun’s rays while cotton clothing can be soaked in cold water throughout the day to aid in cooling. Avoid synthetic fabrics, as they are not breathable.

3. Set up a buddy system
It’s easy to get caught up in your work and forget to take the necessary precautions to avoid heat illness. And it can be difficult for site managers to stay on top of every worker. That’s why a buddy system is vital. Each worker should pair up with a coworker and pay attention to how often they take breaks and drink water, as well as whether they’re displaying signs of heat illness.

4. Take breaks often
You have a job to get done, but shouldn’t ignore your health to do it. Throughout the day, make sure to take breaks in cool, shaded areas as often as you can. And if you’re new to the site or are coming back from a break, ease in to working in the sun. The Center for Disease Control recommends new workers be exposed to the heat for no more than 20% of their day and 50% for workers with previous experience. After that, increase their time outdoors by 20% each day.

5. Know the signs of heat illness
Heat illness can come in a few different forms and while heat cramps and heat rashes are easy to spot, symptoms of heat syncope, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be a subtler at first.

Heat Syncope Symptoms:

  • Light-headedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness/confusion
  • Nausea
  • Clammy skin
  • Pale or flushed complexion
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Elevated body temperature

Heat Stroke Symptoms:

  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Chills
  • Throbbing headache
  • High body temperature
  • Confusion/dizziness
  • Slurred speech

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