Judging by our Spring weather, Mother Nature must have forgotten that summer should start on June 21. Even when it was still spring, we already had more than our fair share of 80°+ days and thunderstorms. The higher temps and humidity levels are a seasonal inconvenience (or blessing) for most people.

But for those in the construction, manufacturing, and industrial sectors, working in extreme heat is dangerous and deadly. So, today’s topic is about how to prepare for the intense heat of summer mentally and physically.

Heat Exposure Can Occur Indoors

One of the most believed false truths about heat exposure is that it typically occurs from working outside. As the mercury soars, it’s evident that certain outdoor occupations, such as construction or mail delivery, will have a much higher risk of heat stress and heat stroke.

Due to the equipment or machinery used, several indoor occupations present a higher heat stroke risk for workers.

  • Bakeries/Kitchens
  • Laundries
  • Electrical utilities
  • Boiler rooms
  • Fire service
  • Foundries
  • Manufacturing
  • Warehousing

An individual’s body heat includes the equilibrium of heat gain, combined with the internal work and outside addition, and the heat loss from cooling or sweating. Additional body heat factors include.

  • Physical activity
  • Humidity
  • Sunlight
  • Air movement
  • Employee clothing and safety gear

As a result, occupational heat exposure results from a combination of factors besides air temperature and the employee’s medical history. OTC medications, recreational drugs, caffeine, and alcohol consumption can severely impact an employee’s physical ability to work in extreme temperatures.

Reducing Mental Heat Stress

While the physical effects of heat stroke are apparent, the mental stress associated with higher temperatures in the work environment can manifest itself in various fashions.

Reduced attention spans – people are in a hurry, as most want to finish their work and escape the heat. As a result, installation details and safety protocols can get overlooked in the interest of quickly completing the job.

Frequent headaches – typically a side-effect of dehydration, pounding headaches can quickly impair an employee’s judgment and decision-making processes. Mistakes are more prevalent, impacting productivity, planning, and scheduling tasks.

Impaired thinking/planning – being physically uncomfortable from the heat can also affect your mental acuity. Not being 100% focused on the task can lead to miscommunications, scheduling, and planning errors, costing the company time, money, and valuable resources.

Increased frustration levels – are to be expected during extreme heat events. Working with hot surfaces in a heated work environment complicates simple maintenance, repairs, or installation projects.

Reducing Physical Heat Stress

NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) has established a recommended alert limit (RAL) for unacclimatized workers (page 94) and a recommended exposure limit (REL) for acclimatized workers (page 95). Once those limits are reached, NIOSH recommends the following to minimize the chances of heat stress and heat stroke.

  1. Train supervisors and workers to recognize the early symptoms and signs of a heat-related illness and how to administer proper first aid.
  1. Limit the amount of time spent in the hot environment, increase the recovery time spent in a cool setting, or a combination of both.
  1. Provide adequate cool drinking water around the work area and encourage workers to stay hydrated. Fluid intakes for employees should not exceed 6 cups per hour. Workers in the heat for <2 hours and involved in moderate activities should not exceed 1 cup every 15-20 minutes.
  1. Change the physical demands using ergonomic design tools to reduce fatigue and muscle strain. Increasing the number of workers for a specific task is another option for employers to consider.
  1. Consider wearable monitors to track employees’ heart rate, pulse, temperature, and oxygen use. Monitors should relay data to a centralized hub for further review, evaluation, and consideration.
  1. Cooling clothing items are another option to consider for extreme heat working conditions. Available in shirts, vests, pants, and shorts, the chilled water flows through tubing in the garment to lower body temps up to 7°.

As you prepare for work in the summer heat, here are some critical thresholds to remember:

  • Human productivity peaks within a temperature range of 70°-76°.
  • Between 90°-105°, a worker can quickly experience cramps and exhaustion.
  • Between 105°-130°, heat exhaustion is a typical diagnosis.
  • Any working environment over 130° can promptly result in heatstroke.

Hopefully, you found our tips for mentally and physically preparing yourself or your workers helpful, as the summer season will “officially” be here soon. For more info regarding working in extreme heat, visit the NIOSH website here.