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Prevent Heat Exhaustion at Work

28/06/2024

One colleague listening to another to depict what mental health first aid may look like

 

Ok, so we have seen a light dusting of sunshine so far this summer but there’s nothing like being prepared for the possibility of a full on heat wave hitting the British Isles – it has happened before after all!

One of the things with living in a country where we don’t often experience high temperatures, is that we can also be woefully unprepared, especially in the workplace.  Statistics show that around 70% of the UK’s commercial buildings were built before 2000 and over half a million buildings are over a hundred years old.  From a health and safety perspective, this means that the risk of heat exhaustion at work is a real concern for a lot of businesses.

Understanding the warning signs of heat exhaustion and knowing how to cool down properly can mean the difference between a minor health issue and an emergency. Keeping cool during a heatwave is crucial, yet so many people are still unaware of the best practices for staying safe in hot weather.

Understanding Heat-Related Illnesses

 

Types of Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat-related illnesses range from mild conditions such as heat rashes and cramps to severe forms like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Each condition comes from the body’s inability to cope with high temperatures:

  • Heat Rashes occur when sweat is trapped under the skin due to blocked sweat glands, leading to skin irritation.
  • Heat Cramps are painful muscle spasms that usually occur in the arms, legs, or abdomen, often resulting from significant salt and fluid loss through excessive sweating.
  • Heat Exhaustion is more serious heat-related illness caused by loss of water and salt in the body – common symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, and dizziness.
  • Heat Stroke is the most serious heat-related illness.  This occurs when the body’s temperature regulation fails and can cause permanent damage or even death if not treated.

Symptoms to Watch For

  • Heat Rash Symptoms: Look for red clusters of pimples or small blisters, especially on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.
  • Heat Cramps Symptoms: Muscle pain and spasms are common, especially after carrying out physical activity in hot environments.
  • Heat Exhaustion Symptoms: Symptoms include headache, nausea, heavy sweating, and elevated body temperature. You might also experience thirst, decreased urine output, and dizziness.
  • Heat Stroke Symptoms: This is a critical condition marked by confusion, seizures, very high body temperature, and possibly unconsciousness. Immediate medical attention is necessary as this condition can be fatal.

Staying hydrated, taking regular breaks, and wearing the right clothing can help reduce the risks associated with heat exposure.

Preparing for Summer Heat

To prepare for the summer heat in the workplace, you need to introduce comprehensive policies and provide adequate training and resources. Taking a proactive approach before a heatwave starts makes sure that employees and management are well-equipped to handle any challenges from higher temperatures.

Policies and Procedures

Creating a safe workplace during the hotter months starts with clear workplace policies. It’s important to develop and implement heat illness prevention programs that are tailored to your specific work environments. These programs should include guidelines for acclimatisation, sufficient hydration practices, and work-rest cycles, especially for new or returning workers who are more susceptible to heat illnesses.  It’s worth pointing out that you might need to change workloads and schedules to avoid the hottest parts of the day and provide access to shaded or air-conditioned rest areas.

Adequate Hydration

Hydration is key to preventing heat-related illnesses. Employers should provide easily accessible drinking water throughout the workplace. Consider installing water dispensers that offer cold water, as cold beverages can help lower body temperature more effectively than warm drinks.  You might find it helpful to introduce regular breaks so your team can rehydrate, especially before and after tasks where it just isn’t possible to drink fluids.

Cool Rest Areas

Providing shaded or air-conditioned rest areas is essential for workers to cool down and escape the heat. If permanent structures are not available, you can look at portable worksite shelters or air-conditioned trailers that are well-ventilated and out of direct sunlight.

You can also look at using fans, air conditioning, or physical barriers to shield workers from heat that is radiating from machinery.

Monitoring Symptoms

Monitoring people for signs of heat-related illnesses is essential, especially in high-risk environments. You could look at implementing regular checks on body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, and hydration levels. If this is something you need to implement, occupational health professionals are experienced in managing heat stress risks.

First Aid and Emergency Procedures

  1. All workers and supervisors should be trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Training should include administering first aid and understanding when to seek further medical help.
  2. Establish clear procedures for responding to symptoms of heat-related illnesses. This includes immediate actions such as moving the affected worker to a cooler area, using active cooling techniques like applying ice packs to the head, neck, armpits, and groin.
  3. Be vigilant for severe symptoms such as confusion, slurred speech, or unconsciousness, which are indicative of heat stroke. In such cases, call emergency services at once while continuing to cool the worker.

Making sure that your workforce are well looked after during a heatwave not only helps to prevent heat-related illnesses, it helps you foster culture of safety and awareness and contributes to a more resilient and productive workforce. 

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