Summer is well underway, bringing with it the typical family vacations and summer activities. But in most parts of the country, the summer also brings the heat, and this year is no exception.
In the shop, there are many areas both inside and outside where heat can cause injury or illness. Working around hot cars and machinery, wearing non-breathable protective clothing and equipment, and certain medical conditions can contribute to heat-related problems. As a shop owner or manager, are you taking precautions to make sure your employees stay relatively cool and comfortable?
Why It’s a Problem
It is important that all employees are aware of how heat can affect the body. When a person works in a hot environment, the body must get rid of excess heat to maintain a stable internal temperature. The body does this by circulating blood to the skin and through sweating.
When the air temperature is close to or warmer than normal body temperature, it becomes harder to cool the body. Blood circulated to the skin cannot lose its heat. Sweating then becomes the main way the body cools off. But sweating is effective only if the humidity level is low enough to allow evaporation, and if the fluids and salts that are lost are replaced adequately.
If the body cannot get rid of excess heat, it will store the heat. When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, the person begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing, may become irritable or sick, and often does not want to drink anything. The next stage is most often fainting, but if the person is not cooled down, they may die.
Another effect of heat in the workplace is that it can increase the risk of injury. Sweaty palms can loosen a person’s grip on tools or machinery, safety glasses can fog up, dizziness can cause balance problems, and it’s possible to get burns from hot surfaces or steam.
If someone in your shop starts to show signs of a heat-related illness, there are many things you can do depending on how the person is feeling. In an emergency or when in doubt, always call 911 for professional assistance.
According to OSHA, the following are common heat-related problems that should be monitored in workplaces across the country:
Heat cramps. These are muscle spasms that occur in the abdomen, arms or legs and are usually painful. Tired muscles, such as those used for performing work, are usually the ones most affected by cramps. The employee should rest in a cool area and drink water or other cool drinks. If the cramps persist, the person should seek medical attention.
Heat exhaustion. Some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion include moist skin, heavy sweating, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, thirst and a rapid heartbeat. If a person is experiencing heat exhaustion, they should sit or lie down in a cool area and drink water or other cool beverages. Cold compresses or ice packs can help cool down the body. Medical treatment should be considered if symptoms do not improve in an hour.
Heat stroke. Heat stroke is very serious and happens when the body is unable to regulate its core temperature. The symptoms are usually fairly obvious, including confusion, fainting, seizures, excessive sweating and/or a very high body temperature. If a person is suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately. In the meantime, make sure the worker is in a cool area with loose clothing. Apply ice packs or cool towels to cool the body. Stay with the worker until professional
Beating the Heat
In many situations, working in a hot shop environment is a reality that can’t be avoided. The good news is that heat-related illnesses and injuries can be prevented with proactive planning. OSHA recommends important and practical ways to reduce heat exposure and the risk of heat-related illnesses:
Engineering controls, such as air conditioning and ventilation. Make sure your systems are maintained and functioning properly. For those working outdoors or exposed to the outdoors, such as in open garages, make sure there are cooling fans or other cooling devices that circulate air.
Work practices: Pay attention to work/rest cycles so your employees working in hot conditions are taking adequate breaks. Also, make sure water and other beverages are available close to the work area to keep employees cool. Rotating job functions among workers can also help minimize overexertion and heat exposure.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to know the facts about heat and how it can harm your body in the workplace. But it’s also important to look out for your co-workers. Someone who is working in the heat often doesn’t recognize the toll it’s taking. When they do, it may be too late. Intervene when a co-worker is suffering and help them get assistance.
Kyle Holt is the president of S/P2, an online safety and pollution prevention training system for the automotive, heavy-duty/diesel, welding, construction, cosmetology and culinary industries. He can be reached at [email protected]