Hydration is the best defense against heat-related illnesses
Heat-related illnesses, most often in the form of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, are serious threats to worker safety. Every year, excessive heat kills dozens of U.S. workers, and incapacitates many more. Although it doesn’t have to be this way because with proper education, monitoring and worker safety procedures, heat illness can be avoided. It’s critical that serious heat illness be avoided on job sites because even if a worker is revived, they can face long-term complications that can affect their quality of life.
Ideally, worksites should be equipped with plenty of educational and reference materials so workers are constantly reminded of necessary precautions regarding heat. It is essential that site managers have this knowledge down pat so they can make sure their crew takes proper precautions when outside temperatures and heat indexes climb to dangerous levels.
A frontline approach to avoiding heat exhaustion or heat stroke is frequent hydration. Hydration will not guarantee workers are safe from heat-related illness, but it will provide a strong measure of protection. This is what proper hydration looks like:
- Less than 90 degrees Fahrenheit – No work restrictions or fluid intake measures are required. Intake fluids as needed and rest as needed.
- Between 90 and 94 degrees Fahrenheit – Workers should rest 10 minutes out of every hour and take in between 12 and 24 ounces of fluid.
- Between 95 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit – Workers should rest between 10 and 20 minutes out of every hour, depending on how strenuous their job is. Fluid intake should measure between 24 and 36 ounces every hour.
- Between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit – Rest at least 20 minutes every hour, and more if needed. Take in 36 to 48 ounces of water every hour.
- Between 105 and 109 degrees Fahrenheit – Workers should get at least 40 minutes of rest hourly and take in between 36 and 48 ounces of water per hour.
When temperatures rise above 109 degrees Fahrenheit work should only proceed under the watchful eye of Health and Safety professionals.
The importance of avoiding heat-related illness
Athletes and workers in demanding, labor-intensive fields, such as construction and landscaping, are most often affected by heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Among athletes and laborers, there is often a sense of powering through the job, even when symptoms of heat exhaustion begin to emerge. This can prove to be fatal and should be strongly discouraged. Instead, the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke should be constantly checked for, along with making sure there is time for rest in the shade and adequate hydration. Symptoms of heat-related illness include:
- Heat exhaustion – Symptoms include excessive thirst, nausea, dizziness, weakness, excessive sweating, decreased urine output, headache, irritability and high body temperature. Heat exhaustion can be triggered by physical exertion in hot and humid weather and is the result of loss of electrolytes through sweating. Sweating pulls both fluids and electrolytes from the body, and they must be replenished to ensure continued cellular function.Most consider heat exhaustion to be a transition step to heat stroke, so aggressive treatment measures should be undertaken if it manifests. Fortunately, with prompt treatment, recovery is promising and rapid. Get the worker to a cool place, have them shed any extra clothing and cool them off with fanning or wet towels. Make sure to give them fluids, but only if they are awake and not confused. Intravenous fluids are an option if the worker is unresponsive.
- Heat stroke – Heat stroke produces most of the same symptoms as heat exhaustion, though disorientation and lack of sweating are also present. Heat stroke emerges when the body’s core temperature rises in excess of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and at this temperature, cellular damage and, by extension, organ failure, is expected in 30 minutes. When the body is stressed with this much heat, proteins inside the cells denature (or lose their physical properties). As a result, the cells lose their structure and leak their contents into surrounding tissue. This can occur throughout the body, so mass organ failure is expected if treatment is not prompt and extensive.Reducing body temperature is the primary goal when heat stroke is present. In fact, it should be attempted before transporting the worker to a medical facility. Move the worker to a cool place and engage in aggressive mechanical cooling. Ideally, the worker would be placed in an ice bath, taking care to monitor the worker at all times, especially if they are unconscious. If an ice bath isn’t available, apply wet, cold towels to the body and head. Intravenous fluid delivery will likely be essential to rehydrate the worker.
Heat stroke should be avoided at all costs. Even if the worker is rapidly resuscitated, serious, long-term complications can emerge. Mortality rates following heat stroke rise dramatically for recovered patients, suggesting that even after recovery, permanent cellular damage is still present and capable of interfering with the body’s normal functions. Research into heat stroke patients has found that functional impairment and loss of independent function are potential outcomes following recovery.
Fortunately, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be avoided outright if employers take them seriously. Stay educated on heat-related illness awareness and provide plenty of information and hydration options for workers on the job site.