With temperatures at record high this summer, health and safety experts are reminding outdoor workers and those working near or around hot surfaces to stay cool and avoid the risk of heat stress.
Canadians may spend three seasons of the year looking forward to summer. Trouble is, when the heat arrives, we find ourselves not heading off to a beach, but to the office — even when the humidex hits 40 C plus, as it has in some parts of the country this summer. Then, for many of us, work isn’t just unpleasant; it can pose serious health risks.
Heat stress results from too much exertion or exposure in extreme heat and humidity. Workers can feel its effects in a wide range of health problems. At its mildest, heat can cause a severe, itchy rash. More seriously, it can produce fainting, heat cramps (involuntary muscle spasms) and heat exhaustion, which is characterized by faintness, nausea, raised heartbeat, low blood pressure and low-grade fever (under 40 C).
At its worst, extreme heat can cause heat stroke, which is marked by a body temperature above 40 C, hot, dry skin, behavioural changes, headache and confusion. If untreated, heat stroke can lead to convulsions, coma and even death.
If your work requires you to spend hours out in the sun or near any kind of hot process, such as a furnace or oven, get to know the signs of heat stress so you can identify them in yourself and in your co-workers. And remember that employers are obliged both to make sure workers understand the dangers of heat stress and to train them on measures they can take to protect themselves. Workers also have the right to refuse dangerous work.
Summer students in particular are at a high risk of heat stress, especially those who work outdoors, says Dr. Leon Genesove, chief physician at the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Occupational Health and Safety Branch.
“Whether they’re working in construction or at a golf course, they’re new, they don’t have the experience. So it’s very important for the employer to provide the training, education, support and supervision to new, young workers to make sure that they understand what the hazards are and that they’re implementing the measures necessary to protect themselves,” he says.
For outdoor workers, keeping cool can be a real challenge — there may seem to be little escape from the direct sun. Here are some tips for reducing the risk of heat stress.
• Drink plenty of water. It’s important not to use thirst as a gauge to how much water you need to drink, says Genesove, who advises drinking about a cup every 20 minutes.
“When you’re working outdoors, in the sun, you lose a lot of water, much more than thirst would indicate, so you have to drink a lot of water,” he says.
• Take longer and more frequent rest breaks than usual and try to take them in cool or air-conditioned areas.
• Decrease the physical workload or slow down the pace of the work.
• If possible, work in a shaded area.
• Keep your head covered.
• If any skin is exposed, wear sunscreen.
• If possible, schedule the heaviest work before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m.
• Be aware of weather conditions during the day.
“Pay attention to weather reports, humidex alerts and, in urban centres, smog advisories,” Genesove says. “These are all important indicators that one has to take action to protect oneself during hot weather.”
Many indoor workers also face scorching heat — they work beside hot equipment, like furnaces and ovens, or in foundries or mines.
“If you’re working in a bakery or a dry cleaning shop, be aware of the additional heat load from furnaces and from humidity indoors. Humidity is a huge factor,” Genesove says.
Like outdoor workers, he says, people who work in hot indoor conditions should be able to take rests in an air-conditioned area, drink plenty of fluids and slow down the pace of work. And again, Genesove says, it’s important to make sure young and inexperienced workers — at hot, humid jobs for the first time — get the necessary training to protect themselves against heat stress.
And be aware that some conditions may put you at greater danger. If you are taking medication, have a medical problem or have just returned to work after an absence of two weeks or more, you need to give yourself more breaks from heat exposure.
If you wear heavy or bulky protective clothing, increase the frequency of your breaks and rest in an air-conditioned area, Genesove says.
“It’s important that you have a specifically laid-out, regimented plan where you have scheduled breaks,” he says, adding people who work in really hot conditions and in protective equipment often need to work for 30 minutes and take then a 30-minute break.
“That’s the extreme end of things. But it’s what people working in furnaces and firefighters do. They work for a short time and then rehab.”