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Posted: 08/25/2016

Test your knowledge of the facts for working safely in the heat

Bobcat working in the heat: fact or fiction.

This isn’t an office job. When it’s hot outside, it’s go time — and you can’t always escape the heat. If you’re lucky, you get to climb into your favorite piece of construction equipment and work in the air-conditioned cab. But if you’re out in the elements, you’d be wise to know how to stay safe when extreme heat strikes to avoid heat-related illnesses. So test your hot weather know-how. Do you know what’s fact and what’s fiction about working when it’s hot?

Fact or fiction? Heat index is just a term made up by TV weather people.

Weather folks do love to go on and on about the heat index. But in your line of work, heat index is a better measurement than air temperature alone for estimating the risk to workers from environmental heat sources. This single value takes temperature, humidity, wind speed and sun intensity into account. The higher the index, the hotter the weather will feel — and the greater the risk that outdoor workers will experience heat-related illness. As the heat index rises, take more precautions for you and your crew.

Tips:

  • Reschedule all non-essential outdoor work for days with a reduced heat index.
  • Move essential outdoor work to the coolest part of the work shift or allow for earlier start times, split shifts or evening and night shifts.
  • Strenuous work tasks and those requiring the use of heavy or non-breathable clothing should not be conducted when the heat index is at or above 115ºF.
  • Alert workers to the heat index for the day and provide plenty of cool drinking water. Establish a clear drinking schedule to ensure that workers are drinking enough water throughout the day.
  • Ensure that adequate medical services are available and know the signs of heat-related illness.
    • Workers who show signs of heat-related illness need immediate attention. Treating milder symptoms (headache, weakness) early by providing rest in a shaded area and cool water to drink can help prevent a more serious emergency.
    • Call 911 immediately if a worker loses consciousness or appears confused or uncoordinated. These are signs of possible heat stroke, which is fatal if not treated.
    • If while working in heat you stop sweating, it’s possible you’re in much more danger for heat stroke. You’re either incredibly dehydrated, unable to regulate your own body temperature or both.
  • In extreme cases, assign one team member to make sure your crew is taking the proper precautions to protect themselves from overdoing it in the heat.
  • Enforce a work and rest schedule, keep an eye on workers’ heart-rates and body temperatures, and provide ways to cool down such as shade, fans, cold towels or ice, among other precautions.

Fact or Fiction? Anything I drink will help hydrate me.

Not all liquids are created equal. Caffeinated and overly sugary drinks won’t hydrate you as well as water and can actually cause dehydration. And sure, sports drinks might sound like your best bet, but they’ll never quench your thirst like water because they often contain sugar and salts. That said, electrolyte beverages will replenish lost electrolytes quickly when needed.

Tips:

  • As the temperature rises, you should drink small amounts of water often. A good rule of thumb is to drink four cups of water every hour when the heat index is 91ºF or higher.
  • Drinks with some flavoring added may be more appealing to workers, so try that if you need to encourage hydration.
  • Workers will need the greatest amount of water if they must work in direct sunshine, during peak exertion and during the hottest part of the day.
  • Skip the alcohol. Even drinking 24 – 36 hours before your shift will worsen dehydration.

Fact or Fiction? New guys can’t keep up in the heat because they’re not as tough.

Sorry newbies, this is somewhat of a fact. But we’ll cut you some slack, because it’s based on science — not on any personal failings on your part. The truth is, workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for heat-related illnesses. In a 2005 study by Cal/OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), nearly half the cases of heat-related illness involved workers on their first day of work. And in 80 percent of the cases, the worker involved had only been on the job for four or fewer days.

The good news is that humans are capable of adjusting to the heat. So it’s important to gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks to help new workers build up a tolerance for hot conditions. Much of this adjustment to heat under normal conditions takes about five to seven days, according to OSHA, as the body will makes continued exposure to heat more endurable. It may take up to several weeks for the body to fully adapt to the warmer temperatures.

Tips:

  • Managers should plan for new crew members to take at least a week of gradually working in the heat to be on par with those used to working in hot conditions.
  • Take caution on the first hot days of the year, because everyone is at an increased risk for heat-related illness on these days, until they have adapted to the warmer temperatures.

Fact or Fiction? Cotton is your best bet for clothing on a hot day.

There is some debate on this topic. Some folks swear by breathable cotton. It absorbs liquid (read: sweat) quickly, but it also takes a long time to dry and retains heat. Other folks opt for lightweight, polyester sports fabrics that wick moisture away from the body. The correct answer? Let’s chalk this one up to personal preference.

  • Try a cooling vest featuring liquid or gel inserts that you refrigerate before wearing.
  • If you’re able, wear a cooling towel, bandana or hat.
  • Sunscreen should also help reduce your risk of heat exhaustion because it reflects UV rays that increase your body temperature.
  • If you’re required to wear protective gear on the job, such as hard hats or work boots, you can begin to see the effects of heat-related illness at a heat index of 70ºF. 

For a full breakdown of the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and treatment recommendations, refer to OSHA’s guidelines here.

And for more information about how to use the heat index to plan for outdoor work, visit the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guide.

Sources: Department of Homeland Security (https://www.ready.gov/heat) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration

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