There’s a reason that Atlanta has earned itself the nickname Hot-lanta. Summers can be absolutely brutal, with temperatures skyrocketing into the upper 90s. We also have to combat the humidity, which is its own struggle. The constant state of feeling sticky and sweaty are occupational hazards of being an Atlantan in the summer. But the sweltering temperatures and heavy air aren’t just uncomfortable—they’re also dangerous. For people who work outside, the heat can become a killer if it causes heat stress.
If you’re an employer who manages employees who work outside, there are a few things that you can do to make sure that your employees are safe in the summer heat. Of course, it’s important to remember that even employees who work inside can suffer from heat sickness. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to provide a safe workplace for your workers. But that’s not the only reason to practice heat safety—as we said before, the heat can be fatal.
How can people get sick from the heat?
The body has natural methods of regulating its temperature. When the body gets too hot, it releases sweat and moves heat to the surface so that it can escape. However, if the temperature and humidity are high (as they always are during Atlanta summers) the body might not be able to cool itself off. And if the heat can’t escape, it’ll get trapped inside, raising the body’s internal temperature. This is when heat illnesses can occur.
How bad is heat sickness?
There are different severities of heat stress. We’ll go over them from least severe to most severe. Note that any of these conditions warrant attention and first-aid, if not professional medical treatment.
Heat rash: Heat rash is caused by sweating profusely. It presents as bumps on the skin, particularly in areas that sweat a lot.
Heat cramps: Cramps are caused when salt is lost from sweating. It presents as pain in the muscles. To treat heat cramps, get the worker to a cool place and give them a sports drink or water to drink slowly. Let them rest for several hours. If you know they have a heart condition, get them medical attention.
Heat syncope: Dizziness or faintness from long periods of standing. Dehydration can sometimes cause syncope. If one of your workers becomes faint or dizzy from the heat, let them rest in a cool place and give them water—but make sure they drink slowly.
Heat exhaustion: This occurs when someone loses too much water and salt through sweating. The symptoms are excessive sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, clamminess, pallor, muscle cramps, and rapid/shallow breathing. If one of your workers presents with these symptoms, have them rest, drink water, and cool them off with wet towels or fans.
Heat stroke: This is a potentially fatal condition. It occurs when the body gives up the fight and stops trying to cool itself. The signs are hot/dry skin, hallucinations, chills, headache, confusion, vertigo, or high temperature. This is not to be taken lightly and requires medical attention immediately. Call 911, get the person to a cool or shaded area, and do everything you can to cool them down—you can use wet towels and fans.
What are some risk factors for heat stress?
Heat stress can occur in people who…
- are dehydrated.
- are unaccustomed to working in the heat.
- are in poor health.
- have had prior run-ins with heat illness.
It’s important to remember that heat illness affects workers who are indoors, too. Workers who are around machinery or objects that emit lots of heat or who come into contact with hot objects are also at risk. A lack of good air movement or ventilation in the workplace can result in heat illness.
If your workers are required to wear protective clothing or suits, they can also overheat. A lot of the time, protective clothing doesn’t breathe or allow for sweat and heat to be taken away from the body. This can lead to heat stress. Be aware of what your workers wear on the job and take appropriate steps to give them enough rest and breaks.
What can I do to reduce the risk of heat-related illness?
Train your employees and supervisors.
Make sure that your employees and your supervisors can recognize the signs of heat stress in themselves and others. If they know what to look for, they’ll be able to catch it sooner. Training is also a good time to talk about how vital it is to drink plenty of water and the best way to stay hydrated—by frequently drinking a little at a time. Also be sure to emphasize that workers need to tell the supervisor about any symptoms of heat illness ASAP.
Allow for workers to have time to build up a tolerance to the heat.
Workers who are new to outdoor labor, who are returning to work after time off, or who are facing the heat for the first time in the season are especially at risk for heat illness because their bodies haven’t had time to acclimatize to being in the heat. Allow for new workers to take lots of breaks and start them off slow—let them increase their workload over time.
Provide lots of water.
OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recommends one pint per worker per hour. Water is your friend. Dehydration, not so much. Let your workers drink lots of water.
Give lots of breaks.
Workers need time for breaks in cool, shaded, or air-conditioned places so their bodies get to rest from the heat.
Pay attention to the heat index.
The heat index calculates the outdoor temperature and humidity. This is especially important in Atlanta—if you’ve ever experienced an Atlanta summer, you know that the humidity is absolutely brutal. In a humid place, sweat can’t evaporate and leave the body like it’s supposed to, which greatly reduces the body’s natural ability to cool itself. Make sure that you’re aware of the risk of heat illness by understanding the heat index and taking precautions.
Make the workplace more comfortable.
If your employees work inside with machines or objects that throw off a lot of heat, use air conditioning and ventilation systems. Fans and exhaust ventilation for super hot or humid areas will also help. To combat heat that’s emitted from machines, you can use reflective shields. It’s also important to make sure there are no places for steam to leak (steam can get extremely hot) and to make sure that “hot spots” are insulated.
Use protective clothing that allows for cooling.
You can get protective clothing that’s tripped out to keep employees cool. For example, some suits have backpacks with a portable air-conditioner, and there are jackets that have compartments for ice packs.
Respect the power of the heat. Take measures to combat it and don’t underestimate how severe heat sickness can be. Atlanta is both a hot environment and a humid one, and those things together are a recipe for disaster when summer hits. Be mindful of how hot it is outside and take care of your workers.
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