OK – now that the extremely hot weather has (temporarily) passed, let’s not let our guard down about heat-related illness. Many workers do not have the option of getting out of the sun during the hottest time of the day, and it is important to remember that the best way to prevent heat-related illness is to keep workers cool and hydrated throughout the day.
There are many risk factors that can affect a worker’s heat tolerance. Risk factors include high air temperatures and humidity, direct sun exposure, indoor radiant heat sources such as ovens or other equipment, limited air movement, physical exertion, not drinking enough fluids (dehydration), personal protective equipment or clothing, certain medications, physical condition, lack of acclimatization, and advanced age.
So what to do? First, it may be wise to consult your healthcare provider if you think you have any risk factors that predispose you to heat illness. These may include the use of medications, chronic or ongoing disease conditions, advanced age (65+), or if you have a previous history of heat illness.
And even if you are perfectly healthy, always take care to remain hydrated. NIOSH recommends that for moderate activity in moderate conditions, each worker should drink 1 cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Workers should be reminded to drink water frequently before becoming thirsty in order to maintain good hydration.
While some workers may prefer the taste of sports drinks, often these types of drinks are not necessary for electrolyte replacement. Workers who eat regular meals and salt-containing snacks will usually be able to replace electrolytes lost during sweating. Energy drinks and other caffeinated drinks should be avoided. In addition to providing plenty of water in convenient locations close to the work site, employers can provide urine color charts near toilet facilities. These charts show the urine colors of a hydrated person compared to a dehydrated person. The darker the urine, the more likely you are dehydrated.
Above all….be prepared. The best preparation is to educate yourself about heat-related illness. A lot of information on heat illness can be found on our Occupational Health Sciences Web Resource site. Here you will find a variety of useful information on the causes of heat illness and prevention strategies. And finally, don’t forget that sun exposure is a major risk factor for skin cancer, so slather on plenty of sun screen several times daily when working outdoors. Here is some Oregon-specific information on heat stress and sun exposure, including en Español.