Issue 8, July 31, 2019

Protecting Yourself in the Heat and Humidity

The heat and humidity of summer have kicked in for 2019. Those in the landscape industry spend much of their time outdoors, therefore are at an increased risk for heat exposure and related illnesses. Each year, dozens of workers die, and thousands more become ill while working in extreme heat or humidity. There is a range of heat illnesses, and they can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. These are all preventable if some simple precautions are made. In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) started a Heat Illness Prevention Campaign that focuses on the dangers of working in the heat.

When a person works in a hot environment, the human body must get rid of the excess heat to keep its temperature stable. The body does this by circulating blood and by sweating. Sweating is usually the most effective way to cool the body naturally. As the sweat evaporates from the skin surface it has a cooling effect due to evaporative cooling. When temperatures are close to normal body temperature, and the humidity level is high, the sweat cannot evaporate.

At this point, the body cannot get rid of excess heat; it begins to store it. When this happens, the body's core temperature rises, and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, it is less able to perform normal functions. When our bodies can’t keep up, we experience heat exhaustion, and in more severe cases, heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion can take place over several days of working outside without proper rehydration. Symptoms include:

  • Moist, clammy skin
  • Weakness and muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Fainting

Treat victims of heat exhaustion by getting them to a cool place with good air movement, get them to lie down, and elevate their legs. Apply cold packs or wet towels while the victim drinks cold water. If symptoms do not improve after 30 minutes, seek medical attention.

Heatstroke is the most severe heat-related illness. Side effects can be as dangerous as organ failure, coma, or death. Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • High body temperature
  • Hot, dry skin (not sweaty); red, flushed appearance
  • Rapid pulse and difficulty breathing
  • Confusion, hallucinations, or irrational behavior
  • Agitation, convulsions, or seizure

If you suspect someone is having a heatstroke, dial 911 immediately.

The OSHA Heat Illness Prevention Campaign recommends the following three key ways to beat the heat:

  • WATER:Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. As you become more heat-stressed, your brain is not functioning properly, and you don't remember or have a desire to drink. Be sure to drink small amounts of water more often. A good rule of thumb is to drink 4 cups of water every hour. It is best to drink a small amount of water every 15 minutes.
  • REST: Helps your body recover.
  • SHADE: Resting in the shade or air-conditioning helps you cool down

Other precautions that you should consider taking while working in the heat-

  • Wear light-colored breathable clothing
  • Wear sunscreen and a hat
  • Check on coworkers often
  • Avoid caffeine as it acts as a diuretic and causes you to lose more water in your body.
  • Check your medications to determine if they make you more susceptible to heat stress. This might require talking with your medical provider or the pharmacist.
  • Personal protective equipment such as respirators or coveralls can increase heat stress so complete the task in short intervals taking breaks in between or completing a pesticide application in the mornings before it gets too warm.
  • Start the days as early as possible to end before it gets too warm.

It is essential to share these practices with employees so that they can prevent heat-related illness or exposure. Be sure to equip employees with water coolers, cups and ice prior for their departure of the workday. Check-in on them often and encourage breaks throughout the day. All employees should be made aware of the signs of heat-related health problems.

OSHA has a free app for mobile devices that enables workers and supervisors to monitor the heat index at their work sites. The app displays a risk level for workers based on the heat index, as well as reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level. I have this app installed on my phone and is very helpful while working outdoors.

Maria Turner

Return to table of contents