While the summer’s higher temperatures welcome outdoor activities and waterside relaxation, they can prove dangerous to workers in transportation, construction, logistics and other environments subject to intense heat, direct sunlight and bulky equipment. Heat-related illnesses can affect workers of all ages and physical conditions, and are among the most frequent causes of occupational injuries and deaths.
Both employers and employees bear responsibility for forging a culture of safety in their workplace, and remaining cognizant of factors that can escalate illness. Often, heat-related incidents result from dehydration, a lack of shade, or insufficient rest or breaks during the workday. Unfortunately, many organizations wait too long to begin educating their workers and holding conversations about proper heat management and hydration.
Proactive prevention and awareness of how to recognize and treat heat illness symptoms literally can make the difference in saving a colleague’s life. With the first day of summer just a few weeks behind us and National Safety Month just concluded now is the ideal time for employers and workers to collaborate and refine – or perhaps establish – a prevention and treatment program specific to their unique environmental needs.
The following four strategies can serve as a helpful checklist to develop plans that keep your team healthy, hydrated and productive against scorching conditions.
1. Recognize the risks
Heat-related illness prevention begins with understanding warning signs and creating a culture of free and open communication. Far too often, workers, athletes and other individuals who exert energy against extreme heat do greater damage because they feel they can “tough it out” or fear repercussions if they speak up.
Physical changes that may seem “normal” to workers, such as fatigue, headaches, confusion or staggered walking, potentially could indicate a more significant issue. Once a downward spiral of heat related illness begins, it’s hard for an individual to recover.
Communication begins with the promotion of ongoing education and reinforcement of heat illness symptoms and treatment methods, as well as the importance of drinking water throughout the day (even aside from times of thirst). In doing so, team leaders also need to make workers feel comfortable saying when they don’t feel well. Should symptoms intensify, having quick access to ice, air-conditioned rooms and replenishing salt tablets can reduce the severity of the incident.
Historical trendspotting also can aid companies in identifying the employees at the greatest risk of illness or injury. Team leaders who are vigilant about documenting the frequency and severity of situations can better anticipate future risks and schedule shifts accordingly. Some companies take even further precaution by weighing their employees daily during the summer swelter, and taking note of individuals who may need to hydrate better to get their weight back up.
2. Dress – and drink – for the occasion
Even as temperatures rise, some professions require workers to wear helmets, padded clothing and other protective items at all times. Workers who must wear special equipment while operating in direct sunlight or warm factories and warehouses need to drink water even more frequently, as the added layers will regulate their bodies’ perspiration. Nonetheless, in situations where conditions allow, workers should switch to lightweight and breathable non-cotton clothing, and wear hats, sunglasses and sunscreen for added defense.
Regardless of the work setting or job, a refillable water bottle makes for the perfect summertime accessory. A nearby bottle gives workers instant access to water throughout the day, and stepping away for refills also can offer valuable rest that further allows the body to recover from physical activity.
3. Schedule for the setting
Summer is the peak season for taking some time away from the job to relax and unwind. Unfortunately, in any profession, workers often struggle to resume their work routines following their break – especially in heat-susceptible settings which require them to resynchronize their bodies with the demands of their job.
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Managers can protect new and returning workers by gradually increasing their workloads. It can take several weeks for the body’s circulatory and perspiration functions to adequately adapt to the rigors of a warm environment. By not pushing too hard too soon, managers can reduce the physical strain and stress on vulnerable colleagues while ensuring their entire team remains optimally productive.
In finalizing their staff schedule, managers should monitor the day’s humidity index along with its temperature. Extreme humidity, or a measure of the amount of moisture in the air, accelerates the time it takes the body to exhaust and overheat, and can prove more dangerous to the body than high temperatures.
Severe environmental conditions also pose greater risks for employees battling diabetes, kidney and heart problems, pregnancy, obesity and other non-related conditions. Managers additionally should factor these scenarios into their planning and schedule employees in roles that best suit their capabilities while minimizing health risks.
4. Take precautions
Dehydration prevention begins before an employee ever steps foot on the jobsite. Employees can offset the impact of warmer environments by managing their diet to prepare their bodies for a labor-intensive schedule.
“Preloading” with plenty of water or electrolyte-based drinks can give the body an ample water supply to begin the day, with replenishment necessary in the following hours. Workers also can stock their body with extra fuel by consuming fluid-rich foods during the most demanding blocks of the summer schedule, with cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, celery, tomatoes and watermelon among the most beneficial options.
While many workers turn to coffee, soda or energy drinks for an afternoon “pick-me-up,” caffeinated products actually can amplify, rather than relieve, dehydration problems by depleting the body’s electrolytes. As conditions intensify, workers can better prepare by reducing their daily caffeine intake to 200-300 mg. – or eliminating it altogether.
The warmer temperatures and stifling sunshine of summer can create challenging and dangerous conditions for workers, namely those subject to outdoor environments or physical labor. However, by taking extra precaution, promoting frequent and fulfilling hydration, and driving ongoing communication between managers and employees, companies can maintain efficiency while upholding health and safety.