Monday, July 25, 2011

Heat-Related Disorders

   I was hoping that in the couple of weeks since the last blog, that the weather would have cooled off, and heat stress would no longer be a relevant topic. That did not occur, and I didn’t seriously expect it to. We will, then, take a closer look at some of the specific ways that heat can affect employees on the job. Heat effects can range from fairly minor to life-threatening, and prevention of all of them is preferable to treating them. Recognizing that hazards exist in the workplace is the first step, and understanding a little more about the more dangerous conditions will help to identify the hazards.
   The effect most of us are the most familiar with is probably sunburn. Sunburn is mainly caused by ultraviolet radiation which is most intense between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. Workers who must be exposed to the sun during these hours should be encouraged to wear loose-fitting, but long-sleeved shirts and long pants to minimize the amount of bare skin exposed. Wide-brimmed hats will help reduce exposure to the face and ears. Topical sunscreens may also be used, although OSHA does not require the employer to furnish them {29 CFR 1910.132(h)(4)(iii)}.  Most sunburns are fairly minor in nature, and may be treated with topical anesthetics, but more severe examples are possible, with blistering, and the subsequent risk of infection possible. Ultraviolet radiation is also strongly linked with chronic conditions such as skin cancer, cataracts, and macular degeneration, so do not ignore the hazards.
   Heat exhaustion occurs when the body’s cooling mechanisms begin to fail to cope with heat being generated and heat being absorbed. It can develop over a period of several days of working in hot environments without sufficient hydration, electrolyte replenishment, and rest. In high heat, it can also develop more rapidly. Symptoms of heart exhaustion include fatigue, heavy sweating, muscle cramps, dizziness, and fainting. Treatment should include moving an affected employee to a cool environment, giving cool beverages (no alcohol, and preferably no caffeine) and encouraging effective rest cycles. If heat exhaustion is not treated, it can become more severe and lead to heat stroke, so take the warning signs seriously.
   Heat stroke occurs when cooling mechanisms break down, and fail to regulate body temperature. The body’s core temperature begins to rise, and in extreme cases, may reach 106 degrees within ten to fifteen minutes. Heat stroke is life-threatening, and should be treated as a medical emergency (as in, call 911!) Death or permanent disability is possible. Symptoms of heat stroke may include hot, dry skin, with no sweating, severe headache, dizziness, and unconsciousness. While emergency responders are being summoned, try to cool the victim as quickly as possible. Spraying with water, immersing in a pool, or sponging water over the victim will all help. Do not try to give liquids to a victim of heat stroke.
   Heat-related disorders can be prevented in the workplace through the use of hazard recognition followed by effective employee training. Of course, follow-up is important to ensure that policies and procedures are being followed, and that they effectively control the hazard. Working in the heat is a requirement for many workers, but it can be done efficiently, and without undue risk, if handled responsibly.


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