Monday, July 11, 2011

Heat Stress Prevention

   With the forecast calling for another in a long line of over-100 degree days, and while listening to my air conditioner warm up for its daily struggle, I thought I would share a few thoughts on heat stress.
   Heat stress, of varying severity, occurs when the body becomes unable to effectively maintain its temperature, approximately 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Every person will react differently to working in the heat, and a wide variety of causal factors can come into play. A person’s age, general health, nutrition, and degree of acclimatization will make a difference, as will medications, smoking, and alcohol use. It is important to train employees to recognize the signs, symptoms, and treatment of heat-related disorders, so they will be better equipped to recognize them in themselves and co-workers.
   The body will react to heat by dilating blood vessels in order to move more blood to the skin, carrying heat away from the body. You cannot move cold in; you can only take heat away. Sweating is a mechanism that is also triggered in order to take advantage of the evaporation process in carrying away heat. If this process works correctly, the body temperature will remain stable. If the process cannot keep up with the amount of heat being generated or absorbed, the body will experience heat stress.
   The best way to manage heat stress is through prevention, and one of the best methods is to ensure proper hydration. Maintaining the fluid level in the body is crucial to the process of heat removal. If there is not enough blood to move heat to the skin surface, then the mechanism will break down, so maintaining fluid levels is critical. Thirst should not be relied upon in hot weather to judge water needs. Instead, employees should drink water regularly throughout the workday, every ten to twenty minutes. OSHA standards require that employers provide an adequate supply of drinking water in the workplace. If portable containers are used, then they must be clearly labeled, with a tight-fitting lid, equipped with a spigot, and used for no other purpose. In other words, employees may not keep their lunches, soft-drinks, whatever, inside the water container. OSHA also prohibits shared or common drinking cups. If disposable cups are used, then there must be a place to throw them away near the water cooler.
   Sports drinks (that have copyrighted names I won’t use here) may also be provided to employees, but the standard only requires water. In all cases, employees should be discouraged from drinking excessive quantities of caffeinated beverages. Soft drinks, coffee, tea, and energy drinks are diuretics, and may actually contribute to dehydration.  Excessive alcohol use off-duty (and, on-duty, too, I suppose!) will also make it difficult for employees to stay hydrated on the job. If the body starts out depleted at the beginning of the day, then it is already struggling against a deficit, and will have a much harder time maintaining fluid levels.
   As employees work in hot conditions, they will begin to acclimatize, and their bodies will become more efficient at maintaining their core temperatures. Encouraging proper rest breaks, good hydration, and effective recovery off-duty will help to ensure that heat-related illnesses will be kept to a minimum. If you are not sure about your exposure, or the best prevention methods available to you, numerous resources exist to get the answers you need. The OSHA website has good information, and you can always contact a specialist in your area. Next time, we will look at the various forms of heat stress, and their treatment.


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