Here in the geographic centre of North America, our short summers can get pretty hot and humid. Plus, here on the prairies, our long hot summer days tend to cool only slightly in the evenings. These long hot and humid days can create some very uncomfortable workplaces for many Manitobans. Beyond being simply uncomfortable, heat and humidity in the workplace can cause heat stress. This can be quite serious and, in extreme cases, a deadly problem.What is Heat Stress?
Heat stress is the body’s inability to control its internal temperature; it can occur when individuals work in hot and humid workplaces where there is little or no air movement. The risk of heat stress may be intensified by the physical activity and exertion required to perform job tasks. A worker’s overall level of fitness and tolerance to heat and humidity can be important factors. Many shops, factories or warehouses do not have air conditioning and hazardous heat and humidity levels can occur. Even offices and outdoor workplaces can expose workers to the hazard of heat stress.
Recognizing the Symptoms
Symptoms of heat stress can vary from one individual to the next. If not treated, heat stress can progress to heat exhaustion and potentially heat stroke. Typical symptoms follow a progression starting with headache, dizziness, upset stomach and vomiting. Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include feeling tired or weak and/or moist skin accompanied by a rapid weak pulse. If left unchecked, symptoms can progress to heat stroke. At this very serious level, symptoms include hot dry skin, rapid pulse, confusion or disorientation, unconsciousness, seizures or convulsions.
As you can see, our long hot and humid summer days can pose a serious workplace hazard!
Treating Heat Stress
If you observe a coworker exhibiting symptoms of heat stress, it is best to move them to a well-ventilated or shaded, cool area. Loosen or remove heavy clothing and provide cool drinking water. Most importantly, alert your workplace first aid team and, if symptoms worsen, don’t hesitate to call 911.
Prevention – The Best Plan
We can’t prevent long hot, humid summer days, but we can plan how we will manage the hazard of heat stress in our workplaces. With all potential workplace hazards, “prevention” is the best plan.
Here is a simple and proven path for developing a heat stress plan for your workplace:
Step One - Responsibility is the first step. Employers bear responsibility for ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of employees and others in the workplace. This responsibility includes ensuring hazards are identified, supervisors and workers are informed and effective steps are taken to eliminate and mitigate the hazards. Employers should assign a key member of supervision to serve as a focal point for developing and implementing a workplace-wide heat stress safety plan.
Step Two - Consultation and employee involvement are critical steps to ensure success of this important safety initiative. Members of the workplace safety and health committee should be involved at the outset. If there is no safety committee, worker representatives or other employees must be involved. Each workplace is unique, so the only way to effectively identify the risks is to involve all appropriate parties.
Step Three - Once the specific workplace heat stress risks are identified, a comprehensive plan to prevent heat stress and to ensure prompt and effective treatment is prepared and put in place. The plan should include employee training, awareness and communication. It must also include steps to implement workplace changes where necessary and to provide required resources.
A Final Important Tip
This is a critical time to review your workplace first aid and emergency response plans and resources. Ensure that your organization “plans” for the possibility of heat stress and that you are “prepared” to handle workplace incidents that might arise over the hot and humid summer days ahead.