Too hot for work?

For an office worker, the unusually hot summer means trying to make it from air-conditioned car to air conditioned office without breaking a sweat. But if you work outside, this heat can be downright dangerous. This summer season has been one of the hottest on record.

Since June 1, more than 324 hot weather records have been broken or tied as reported by weather stations across the country. One town in Tennessee hit 112 F on July 2!  In this extreme heat, outdoor workers—construction, agricultural, electrical and others –are at risk simply by doing their jobs.

Since 1992, at least 523 deaths and 43,454 serious injuries in workers due to extreme heat exposure have been reported.

OSHA (the the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the Department of Labor launched a nationwide campaign to educate employers and workers on the dangers of heat exposure and preventive measures they can take to reduce the risk of heat-related injury and death.

But the consumer watchdog agency, Public Citizen, doesn’t think the Fed has gone far enough.  OSHA currently has no regulations in place to protect workers from heat-related illness and has denied Public Citizen’s multiple petitions to create protective standards. If you work in California or Washington State, you have some protection from state regulations, but Public Citizen says even these aren’t enough.

The military, by the way, has the most rigorous guidelines protecting soldiers and other employees from extreme heat conditions.

Though prevention tactics are most effective when they are part of the culture of a company, organization or farm, workers can take some steps to protect themselves against heat related illness. First some background on how your body copes (or doesn’t) with heat.

Your body’s temperature shouldn’t rise much above 98.6 F, but two conditions can raise it even further: The temperature of your environment (how hot it is) and your metabolic heat, which is how much heat your body generates when you’re active. When both are combined—working hard on a scorcher of a day—your internal temperature can rise to toxic levels.

Sweat is your body’s most important response to decreasing your core temperature.  As it evaporates, it removes heat and cools you off, especially if there’s a breeze.  But certain factors can impede your ability to sweat, such as humidity and un-breathable clothes (think heavy worker’s uniforms or protective equipment).

With these facts in mind, here’s what you need to do to stay cool (or at least not overheat):

1. Avoid heavy or non-breathable clothing that don’t allow your body to sweat out the heat. Also, wear hats and light-colored clothing – they help block the sun.

2. Drink tons of water, but a little at a time. The average person requires three liters per day. But laboring in the hot sun increases your water needs exponentially. It’s best to drink a small amount often. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that workers drink one cup of cool water three to four times an hour. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, as thirst is an early sign of dehydration.

3. Avoid coffee or alcohol, which can increase your fluid loss.

4. Take Five. Take frequent five-minute breaks in the shade.  Guidelines for the military state that if you’re doing hard work in temperatures in the high 80s, you need a rest break every 45 to 50 minutes.  But that’s for super fit young men and women, so average citizens may need more frequent breaks, especially when the temperature rises even higher.

5. What is considered too hot depends on how hard you’re working and whether you’re in direct sunlight. More than half of the legal claims for heat-related illness were filed for worker exposures to outdoor temperatures less than 90 F, according to Public Citizen’s petition.

6. Acclimate slowly. Your body needs time to adjust to working in hot temperatures, so if you’re just starting to work outdoors in the heat, work for only a couple of hours for the first few days (if possible) or take more frequent breaks and a lighter work load.

Be aware of the signs of heat illness:

Signs of mild illness: heat cramps, mild impairment of sensory, motor or visual skills.

Signs of the next more serious phase, called heat exhaustion: nausea, headache, weakness, and intense thirst. Fainting may occur.

Signs of life-threatening illness, or heat stroke:  confusion, irrational behavior, loss of consciousness, convulsions, a lack of sweating, dry skin, and a high body temperature of about 105.8.