Working in the Heat and Heat Illnesses
Though people around the world associate Canada with winter, Canadians know that summers in Canada can be hot—blisteringly hot. (In fact, in June of this year, Lytton, BC hit 49.6 °C—hotter than it’s ever been in Las Vegas!) What’s more, invariably it’s the season when the amount of outdoor work peaks, putting some workers at risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and other heat-related health issues. There is no specific legislation with regards to temperature limits beyond which workers must down tools, but there are ways for workers to be protected when the temperature soars.
Types of heat illnesses
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, severe heat illnesses can last for several days following dehydration from exposure to high temperatures, whether you work outside or not. Let’s have a look at just what can happen if you don’t take the proper precautions.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 41°C or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Symptoms of heat stroke are:
- Dry, hot, reddish skin
- Lack of sweating
- High body temperature
- Strong, rapid pulse
- Slurred speech
Heat stroke can be fatal if it isn’t treated right away. To make matters worse, the person experiencing heat stoke usually won’t notice. In the workplace, most of the time it’s a co-worker who will recognize the symptoms and intervene by moving the worker to a cooler place and seeking medical attention.
Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to the loss of water and salt, typically through sweating. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Excessive sweating
- Weakness or fatigue
- Dizziness and/or confusion
- Clammy skin
- Muscle cramps
- Flushed complexion
Heat cramps are painful cramps in the body’s muscles due to low salt levels and are typically caused by excessive sweating. Symptoms of heat cramps include:
- Muscle pain, usually in the abdomen, arm or legs.
- Muscle spasms, usually in the abdomen, arm or legs.
Heat rash is an irritation of the skin caused by excessive sweating. Symptoms of heat rash include:
- Red clusters of pimples or small blisters, usually on neck and upper chest, groin area, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.
Tips for working in hot weather
One of the best things you can do to avoid heat illnesses is to stay hydrated. It is recommended that workers drink about 16 ounces of water before starting and 5 to 7 ounces every 15 or 20 minutes.
When conditions are hot workers should avoid alcohol, coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks, all of which are dehydrating. Another obvious step is to wear lightweight, light-coloured and loose-fitting clothing. Lightweight clothing reduces fatigue, light-coloured clothing reflects light and heat, and loose-fitting clothing allows for air circulation. Use of natural fibre fabrics (usually cotton for workers) helps the skin to breath.
Other obvious steps that workers can take to reduce the impact of high temperatures and/or high humidity are to:
- Stay out of direct sunlight and, if that’s not possible, wear a hat
- Slather on plenty of sunscreen—often. Getting a sunburn has both immediate and long-term consequences
- Slow down and work at an even pace. Know your own limits and ability to work safely in heat.
- Use a damp rag for wiping your face and draping around your neck
Roles of individuals and health and safety committees
Avoiding the impacts of hot weather requires workers to take responsibility for themselves—and for their co-workers. It is vital to know the signs of heat-related illness and to be alert to them.
Employers should talk to their health and safety committees to create a hot weather plan and to determine work procedures for times when temperatures take flight.