Many people are exposed to heat on some jobs, outdoors or in hot indoor environments. Operations involving high air temperatures, radiant heat sources, high humidity, direct physical contact with hot objects, or strenuous physical activities have a high potential for causing heat-related illness.
Outdoor operations conducted in hot weather and direct sun, such as farm work, construction, oil and gas well operations, asbestos removal, landscaping, emergency response operations, and hazardous waste site activities, also increase the risk of heat-related illness in exposed workers.
Every year, thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure, and some even die. These illnesses and deaths are preventable.
Why is heat a hazard to workers?
When a person works in a hot environment, the body must get rid of excess heat to maintain a stable internal temperature. It does this mainly through circulating blood to the skin and through sweating.
When the air temperature is close to or warmer than normal body temperature, cooling of the body becomes more difficult. Blood circulated to the skin cannot lose its heat. Sweating then becomes the main way the body cools off. But sweating is effective only if the humidity level is low enough to allow evaporation, and if the fluids and salts that are lost are adequately replaced.
If the body cannot get rid of excess heat, it will store it. When this happens, the body’s core temperature rises and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, the person begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing on a task, may become irritable or sick, and often loses the desire to drink. The next stage is most often fainting and even death if the person is not cooled down.
Excessive exposure to heat can cause a range of heat-related illnesses, from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heatstroke can result in death and requires immediate medical attention.
Exposure to heat can also increase the risk of injuries because of sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses, dizziness, and burns from hot surfaces or steam.
Workers exposed to hot indoor environments or hot and humid conditions outdoors are at risk of heat-related illness, especially those doing heavy work tasks or using bulky or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment. Some workers might be at greater risk than others if they have not built up a tolerance to hot conditions, or if they have certain health conditions. The table below shows some environmental and job-specific factors that increase the risk of heat-related illness.
Factors That Put Workers at Greater Risk Environmental High temperature and humidity Radiant heat sources Contact with hot objects Direct sun exposure (with no shade) Limited air movement (no breeze, wind or ventilation) Job-Specific Physical exertion Use of bulky or non-breathable protective clothing and equipment
Workers who are suddenly exposed to working in a hot environment face additional and generally avoidable hazards to their safety and health. New workers and those returning from time away are especially vulnerable. That’s why it is important to prepare for the heat: educate workers about the dangers of heat, acclimatize workers, gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks to help new workers and those returning to a job after time away build up a tolerance for hot conditions. The heat index, which takes both temperature and humidity into account, is a useful tool for outdoor workers and employers (see Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers).