Heat Stress – The Serious Risks, And How To Manage Them

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The Serious Issue Of Heat Stress

Heat stress is a serious occupational hazard that can bring down even the heartiest workers. Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rated excessive heat as the leading weather-related killer. So, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found 357 worker deaths and over 13,000 cases of injury that resulted in missed days of work from the private sector due to “Exposure to Environmental Heat” between 2003-2013.

Heat stress happens when the body’s means of controlling its internal temperature starts to fail. Heat waves cause stress on the body when too much heat is being absorbed, and not enough heat is being lost through the body’s normal cooling processes. Once the body’s temperature reaches 99.7 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stress has begun to set in – and even 30 minutes of the body’s temperature at 104 degrees can cause brain damage.

Awareness of heat stress factors, symptoms and means of prevention is vital to mitigating risks and keeping workers safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) amped up their stance on the issue three years ago by introducing a heat stress campaign offering resources and information for both employer and employee centered around “Water, Rest, and Shade.” As a result, the number of workers killed by environmental heat has decreased over the last three years. While even one is too many, OSHA reported just 13 heat-related deaths in 2013.

As workers are becoming smarter about how to prevent common heat-related illnesses (HRIs) such as heat rash, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, that number should only decrease.

Heat Stress Risk Factors

Factors both personal and environmental contribute to a person’s heat stress risk. Workers at the greatest risk of heat stress include those who are older, overweight, dehydrated, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or are taking medications affected by extreme heat.

Environmental factors such as high temperature, humidity, direct sun or heat also play a role. Even hot equipment and heat reflected off the ground can make a worksite sweltering. Workload intensity and duration are additional factors that can contribute to an employee's heat burden by producing metabolic heat. Protective clothing and some personal protective equipment can have an affect an employee's ability to keep cool through the evaporation of sweat and contact with cooler air.

But heat stress isn’t just an issue on outdoor worksites. It can also happen in indoor working environments where employees are working near sources of heat or inside buildings with limited cooling capabilities. In workplaces such as foundries, commercial bakeries, kitchens and laundries, heat is a year-round hazard.

Heat Stress Solutions

Here are a few practical solutions to mitigate the health hazard of heat stress:

  • Monitor Employee Exposure : Using special instrumentation designed to monitor employee exposure to heat stress is an ideal solution. The instrumentation collects environmental data, stores it for download later, or can even send the data to the cloud for immediate analysis. Knowing the weather-related conditions in real-time is very effective and preventing of exposure to heat stress risk factors.
  • Shelter/Shade or Air Conditioning : Provide shelter for workers that blocks direct sunlight and gives them a place to rest, get hydrated, and keep cool. This type of solution should be considered in work zones that are exposed to high temperatures and direct sun rays.
  • Hydration : Hydration is key to preventing heat stress. A dehydrated person is not able to sweat fast enough to dissipate heat, which causes the body temperature to rise. A 2006 Cal/OSHA Heat Illness Study found that more than three in every four workers who suffered from HRIs were dehydrated.
    • Smart hydration tips include:
      • Start and end your day with a glass of water and sip continuously throughout the day.
      • If you’re going to be working in any sort of heat (indoors or out), drink water before, during and after your shift.
      • Enhance your water intake with an electrolyte solution because the rate of absorption of electrolyte drinks compared to water is significantly faster in the first minute.
  • PPE : Heat stress personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed to transport moisture, block sunlight, and reduce direct sun exposure. It generally falls into one of two categories: evaporative and absorptive.
    • Evaporative cooling products require water and some sort of airflow, which makes them ideal for hot and windy worksites. These solutions can best regulate core body temperature when placed on a part of the body where large blood vessels are located near the surface of the skin (neck, groin, armpits, etc.).
    • Absorptive cooling products like terry cloths, sponges, elastics and high performance technical fabrics help trap or move sweat away eyes and hands. Absorption products are perfect for jobs that require high levels of mobility, they can be tied around the head or attached to a hard hat.


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