Heat Stress: the facts

It still rains cats and dogs here but when it doesn’t, the heat is unbelievable! A few nights ago it rained heavily. The rain was so welcome as though there was no power, it made the night very bearable. It left the atmosphere feeling so cool to the point where I didn’t notice there was no fan or Air Conditioning (AC) on. Infact it felt like the AC was on. This wonderful experience was lost a few hours later. By morning, the sun had come out in full force. It was so unbelievably hot. I couldn’t believe how the cool weather could change overnight into the scorching heat. I remember washing my make-up off my face as my face suddenly felt so heavy and sticky – I get like this when the weather gets too hot for me to bear and I am sure most people feel the exact same way especially during the summer months. Ignoring this feeling and getting on with your work and life is very dangerous. Many people in Africa are used to the heat and see it as normal. Yes it is normal weather for us but we need to do what we can to prevent it resulting in ill health. The thing is when you are exposed to extreme heat, be it at work or home, you could be at risk of heat stress.

So what is Heat Stress?
Heat stress is the inability of the body to cool itself to main a healthy temperature of 37°C. Heat stress is caused by:

  1. Dehydration – once dehydrated, a person is unable to sweat. Sweating helps heat loss and exerts a cooling effect on the body.
  2. Poorly ventilated areas – lack of air flow especially on hot days. If the body gains more heat than it can lose, the body temperature begins to rise.
  3. Hot and crowded area – if you’ve noticed, during concerts and large events, there usually is a lack of air movement and excessive heat even with fans and AC on.

Who is at risk?
You are at risk of heat stress if you work in factories, kitchens/bakeries, boiler rooms, mines, construction, confined and poorly ventilated areas, etc. Firefighters are at higher risk of heat stress due to the nature of their jobs where they deal directly with fire and smoke.

Babies, young children, pregnant and nursing mothers, those with existing medical conditions and those over 65 years are also at risk. I remember a friend of mine who was pregnant – she always felt hot and always left all the doors and windows open during the winter. I dreaded the many nights I knew I had to sleep over at her place – I couldn’t complain but would wrap up so nicely but still woke up in the morning with pain in my chest. Pregnant women huh!

Problems caused by Heat Stress
Exposure to extreme heat at work could result in occupational illness such as heat stroke, heat rashes, heat cramps or heat exhaustion (will explain these illnesses in my next article). It could also result in accidents and injuries as a result of dizzy spells or fainting, sweaty palms, foggy safety glasses or fatigue. Existing medical conditions can also be made worse by heat stress.

So what can be done?
Heat stress can be prevented by reducing the risk. How?

1. Training:

    With all this said, heat stress can be prevented but first, workers need to be educated about heat stress – the symptoms, safe working procedures and what to do in an emergency; how it affects their health, safety and wellbeing; and what they can do to prevent it.

Personal Cooling System

2. Control and monitor the temperature: You can introduce fans and/or Air conditioning to your workplace. AC should be set to 23°C (if you are going to be sitting down most of the time that you are at work) so that the room isn’t too cold or too warm. Keep cool and avoid rigorous exercises or perform them at the coolest times of the day. In 2013, somewhere in the UK, 2 soldiers died due to performing rigorous training activity in extremely hot weather – infact that day was declared the hottest day of the year!

Some jobs require you to use PPE (personal protective equipment) and this sometimes can result in heat stress. If using PPE or providing it for your staff e.g the HAZMAT suit, make sure you/your staff use a personal cooling system or that the HAZMAT suit provided comes with a cooling system.

Image from http://ilab.engr.utk.edu

Image from http://ilab.engr.utk.edu

3. Re-hydrate:

    Drink lots of fluid. I have said fluids because I know people who do not drink water even if it could save their lives. Although sweating is necessary and keeps you cool, it also means you are losing water and you need to re-hydrate often. Drink water or non-alcoholic drinks as often as you can (like every 20 minutes) – you can never overdose on fluids as long as they are not caffeinated, alcoholic or sugary

4. Don’t leave kids or pets in cars

    There are instances where people have left their pets in cars and came back to either find out they have suffocated or died thanks to heat. For example, in the UK, in 2011, 2 dogs died after they were forgotten by their handler for 7 hours in a car during the summer. Even if you will be stepping away from your car for a few minutes, never ever leave children locked up in cars. Very dangerous. Don’t be tempted to wind the window down slightly in the hope that they will get some air. It is too risky.

What else do you do to keep cool?

Watch out for my next post on occupational illnesses caused by heat stress.