For many Americans, working in extremely hot conditions is a daily part of life because of their occupation. In situations like these, employers must work diligently to educate employees via clear signage regarding how to protect against environmental heat distress. However, as people go back to work amidst the coronavirus pandemic, many are still required by the state or workplace to wear masks in an effort to limit the spread of the disease. This can present a new challenge for both employees and employers as they learn to navigate this new normal in the workplace.
What Is Heat Stress?
When active in an environment of extreme heat, some individuals may be at risk for heat stress. Prolonged or even sometimes short-term exposure to intense heat may give way to more serious conditions, such as:
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion
- Heat stroke
- Heat rashes
While any of the above conditions can be harsh, they can also bring additional job-related risks for employees.
Complications of Heat Stress on the Job
Without proper care, employees that work part or all of their day in the heat may develop some symptoms of heat distress that could impact their ability to do their job safely, as well as keep those working with them safe. Examples of some of these symptoms may include:
- Heat-fogged glasses
- Muscle cramps
- Sweaty palms
Experiencing one or more of these conditions could be enough to sideline an employee temporarily for a day or more, and that can directly affect a business’ productivity.
Mask Wearing vs. Environmental Heat Distress
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and in accordance with some Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policies, many businesses are requiring that their employees wear masks to help prevent the spread of the disease in the workplace. The issue then becomes if wearing a mask in the heat increases an individual’s risk of heat distress.
Heat stress should always be a concern when dealing with high temperatures, either indoors or outdoors. However, the situation can quickly become more complicated with the introduction of mask wearing amidst a pandemic.
Wearing a mask while battling high temperatures can present two primary challenges:
- The mask could potentially contribute to making a person feel warmer than they would without it
- The mask could prevent others from noticing the telltale signs of environmental heat stress in an individual
Why Mask Wearing Signage Needs to Cover Signs of Environmental Heat Distress
Knowing that there is a risk of heat distress is one thing—knowing that mask wearing could potentially increase that risk is another. It is important for a business to remind employees to constantly monitor their health.
One of the best ways to do this is by posting reminders in the form of mask wearing signage that covers signs of environmental heat distress. This is a simple, prominent, and cost-effective way to keep workers alert of possible signs of heat stress, as well as how to combat them.
Signage should be well placed for maximum visibility throughout the interior and exterior of the workplace. Some examples of helpful information to include on signage can be reminders to:
- Wear a mask.
- Be on the lookout for symptoms of heat stress such as excessive thirst, heavy sweating, dizziness, nausea, and weakness.
- Hydrate frequently.
- Check on a co-worker.
By putting mask information on the same signage as warnings about environmental heat distress, it can help ensure that employees understand how one could impact the other and the importance of being vigilant with both.
5 Steps to Combatting Heat Stress
As an employer, there are five steps you can take to ensure that your workers are less susceptible to heat stress, including:
- Posting easy to read signage about masks and heat stress. When properly placed, these signs can serve as a reminder to employees of heat stress signs and symptoms to self-monitor for.
- Make extra masks available. Particularly in extreme heat, it is common for the body to sweat as a way of trying to keep itself cool. However, a mask that becomes saturated with sweat is not as easy to breathe through. Keep a supply of dry masks on hand and make them available to employees when their own becomes soaked with sweat.
- Posting easy to read signage about hydration. Keeping the body hydrated is one of the top ways to help reduce heat distress. Visible signs reminding employees to stay hydrated can be particularly helpful.
- Schedule breaks. Whether it is allowing an employee a fifteen-minute break in an air-conditioned space, or allowing them to take off their mask while outside and away from others, it may help ease their breathing and better manage their heat levels.
- Institute a buddy system. With each employee having a designated buddy to check in on them frequently throughout the day, it serves as a reminder for individuals to regularly drink water, take breaks, and monitor their heat levels.
It is important for employers to protect their employees, and while we continue wearing masks in a variety of settings, proper signage can help protect the workforce from heat-related illnesses.