With summer dawning on us, and the sweltering heat already beginning to set in, it's about time to hide away in air-conditioned offices and pretend we don't notice it. Unfortunately, that's not an option for everybody, so we've assembled some information to help you beat the heat this summer season.

 

What is heat stress?

According to WorkSafe Queensland, heat stress is the "total heat load on the body" including variables like the ambient air temperature, radiant heat (from things like vehicles) and the heat generated from physical activity, among other things. Heat strain, on the other hand, is how the body responds to heat stress. Essentially, heat stress is what you measure, while heat strain is how your body reacts to it.

 

If the body has to work too hard to keep cool or starts to overheat, a worker begins to suffer from heat-related illness. This is a general term to describe a range of progressive heat related conditions including fainting, heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

 

Common Heat-Related Effects

  • Heat rash:
    Skin can become irritated and cause discomfort when working in heat.

  • Heat cramps:
    Muscles can cramp as a result of heavy sweating without replacing salt and electrolytes.

  • Fainting:
    Can occur when workers stand or rise from a sitting position.

  • Dehydration:
    Increased sweating can lead to dehydration if workers aren’t drinking enough water.

  • Heat exhaustion: 
    Occurs when the body is working too hard to stay cool.

  • Heat stroke: 
    Occurs when the body can no longer cool itself. This can be fatal.

  • Burns: 
    Can occur if a worker comes into contact with hot surfaces or tools.

  • Slips: 
    A worker will sweat more in hot conditions which can increase the risk of slips - for example, a worker might slip when using sharp tools if their hands are damp.

  • Reduced concentration:
    When working in heat it is more difficult to concentrate and a worker may become confused. This means workers may be more likely to make mistakes, such as forgetting to guard machinery.

  • Increased chemical uptake into the body: 
    Heat can cause the body to absorb chemicals differently and can increase the side effects of some medications.

 

How do I prevent this?

There are a multitude of ways to minimise the effects of heat strain, or to remove it entirely. All working situations are different and will require different levels of protection in order to prevent heat-related illnesses, so any advice should be revised and adapted for your particular scenario.

 

However, first and foremost, hydration is invaluable. Keeping up your fluid intake is a must - and not only just when you're thirsty. Thirst is a symptom of dehydration, meaning you were dehydrated before you ever realised you needed a drink. Your fluid replacement should try to approximate your sweat and urine losses, which will be different for every person and every job. A fast rule is 200-300mL every 10-20 minutes, but all requirements will differ. The safest option is to just drink more than you think you need.

 

Not only do you lose fluids when it's hot, you also lose electrolytes, important minerals transmitted through fluid that are integral to a healthy body. Electrolyte-replacing drinks such as Sqwincher Concentrate or the Thorzt Hydration Drink are designed to supplement your fluid intake and maintain your bodily functions at an efficient (and cost-effective!) rate. 

For personal attire, there are cooling towels, scarves and neck ties that can be worn for relief and cooling, your water bottle should accompany you no matter where you go, and we all know how to slip slop and slap on our sunscreen.

 

Of course, your work should be structured to minimise heat exposure and to protect workers from heat stresses. Your workplace would also benefit from acquiring a Sun Shelter to help you all escape the heat. In hot conditions, make sure to always work in a team so you can all monitor each other's conditions, and working hours should be aimed to dodge peak temperatures. Consider organising your schedule so that you take a long break from work around noon, and return to work once it cools down some.

You'll even be more effective! European studies found that for every degree above 25°C, workers lose 2% productivity, meaning that a 35°C working environment is 20% less productive. Beating the heat helps both you and the business, so there's no reason not to take the temperature into consideration when planning out your work.

 

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

These two afflictions are the two dangerous stages of major dehydration, and you need to be prepared for them - just in case.

 

Heat Exhaustion is what happens when "someone becomes dehydrated due to fluid loss from a hot environment and/or excessive physical activity", according to the Australian Red Cross.

Their list of symptoms includes:

  • Headache
  • Body temperature more than 40 degrees Celsius
  • Muscle cramps
  • Exhaustion and general weakness.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Dizzy spells
  • Pale, cool, clammy skin at first, becoming flushed and red later
  • A rapid, weak pulse.

If somebody is suffering from heat exhaustion, they need to be immediately removed from their location, and taken to a cool or shady area so they can lie down in total rest. Be sure to monitor them during this.

Excess clothing should be removed, and tight clothing should be loosened if at all possible to allow them to cool off more efficiently.

They need to be cooled, with something like a cooling towel, scarf or neck tie

If responsive, they should be given cold water or a high-hydration drink to hydrate and restore electrolytes.

If the person is suffering from muscle cramps, gently stretch the affected muscles to ease pain.

If they are, or become, unresponsive, place in the recovery position. If they are unable to drink, vomiting, unresponsive and/or do not improve, call an ambulance immediately. Prepare to give CPR if necessary.

 

The next, far more dangerous stage of dehydration is Heat Stroke. It is a life-threatening emergency and can cause a person to collapse or fall unconscious. Heat stroke is more serious and means the body is no longer able to regulate its temperature by cooling the skin's surface by sweating. The internal body temperature rises, and organ damage can occur.

The Australian Red Cross lists the symptoms of heat stroke as:

  • Typically no longer sweating. 
  • Red, hot and dry skin. 
  • A body temperature more than 40°C. 
  • A rapid, strong pulse. 
  • Rapid, noisy breathing. 
  • Irrational or aggressive behaviour. 
  • Deterioration of the conscious state. 

If somebody appears to be suffering from heat stroke, call 000 immediately. Do not delay - they need to be attended to by trained medical professionals.

While waiting for the ambulance, cool the person using cooling towels or a wet sheet with a fan directed across the surface. If ice packs are available, wrap them in towels and place them around the neck, groin, and armpits.

Make sure to monitor the person continually, and if shivering occurs, reduce active cooling. If unresponsive or not alert, place them in the recovery position, and prepare to give CPR if necessary.

 

These worst case scenarios should be avoided at all costs, but it's important to be aware of the dangers. Heatwaves are Australia's deadliest natural hazard, so treat the heat with as much care as you would an earthquake or a big snake, and check out our Hydration & Cooling products online to make sure you're prepared.

 

Check out Safe Work Australia's guide for managing the risks of working in heat here