As summer approaches with sudden surges of temperatures in the Northwest, it’s important to address concerns about working in the heat. When temperatures rise suddenly, it raises concern about working conditions for those such as flaggers and construction workers submitted to the environment for long periods of time. Typically, we experience steady rises in temperature, enabling workers to adjust and acclimate to working in the heat. As of late, the Northwest has experienced more sudden transitions (or lack thereof!) with ups and downs in temperatures. According to the CDC, natural adaptation or acclimatization is built over time and requires careful planning to effectively keep workers safe.
TraffiCorp takes precautions in this regard to help our employees adjust well to the seasonal changes and mitigate the hazardous effects working in the heat can have.
Dangers of working in the heat
Inevitably, each year, many workers across the country are subject to extreme working conditions in the summer months. Depending on the occupation, this could be a majority of the time. The nature of some jobs involve working with hot ovens, machinery, and other conditions such as roadside in which high heat makes up most of the working environment. Extreme heat and humidity can cause heat illness in anyone regardless of age and physical condition.
This is why educating and providing resources to workers for heat prevention is a vital part of our safety efforts. Having a plan for helping workers acclimate to heat and/or humidity in the work zone is a flexible process that takes into account the intensity of heat/humidity, nature of the project, worker experience and physical condition.
Protecting worker in the field
OSHA law requires employers to provide work places free of known safety hazards, including heat. Back in 2011, OSHA launched their Heat Illness Prevention Campaign to educate both employers and employees on the dangers of working in the heat, in effort to encourage safety precautions in the field. Their message boils down (but not literally…) to three key points: Water. Rest. Shade.
How the body adapts
Exposure to heat produces an increase in heart rate along with the temperature of skin, muscles, and organs. Prolonged exposure to heat can cause symptoms of heat illness: headaches, nausea, dizziness. When the brain detects temperature increases, it launches a thermoregulatory response to cool down. Sweating and vasodilation of blood vessels is the primary mechanism to cool the core temperature. Adapted exposure, increasing over time, with adequate recovery time allows the body to acclimate and thus tolerate heat.
Taking time to adapt
Adaptation is key to preventing the dangerous effects of heat. This means that special measures are taken to help flaggers adjust and build their heat tolerance:
Early season and new workers: on an average 8 hour shift, start with approximately an hour and a half in the heat for their first day on the job. Exposure time increases slowly over the course of 7-14 days by roughly 20%. Typically, an average season will allow for this naturally. With sudden increases of heat, safety measures are taken (see below) more strategically.
Mid Season and experienced Workers: on an average 8 hour shift could spend approximately 3 or even 4 hours in the heat in the first days. Increasing over the course of a week to 5-6.5 hours in hot/humid conditions and up to a full 8 hours with safety measures.
Maintaining heat adaptation
When a worker isn’t routinely subject to heat or takes a week or more away (this could also result with a cold front), loss of heat acclimatization can result. A few days out won’t make much of a change, however. To avoid heat illness, dehydration, and fatigue upon return, 2-3 days to reacclimate is typically sufficient.
Safety measures in the heat
Water and other appropriate fluids are no doubt critical to overall health, but particularly in the heat as the body loses much water to perspiration. Without replacement of lost fluids, physical acclimation is much more difficult or possibly hindered completely. Water breaks and keeping a water bottle on hand is necessary specifically for flaggers in the field who are standing with little air flow and in open sun. Drinking small sips through the day will prevent thirst and dehydration. A proper amount would equate to roughly 1 cup (8 oz.) every 20 minutes or 30 at most. It is recommended not to exceed 6 cups per hour. In more extreme conditions, supplementing with an electrolyte drink may be necessary as electrolytes may decrease more rapidly than the body can replace them. Some tips:
- Adding a pinch of sea salt of pink Himilayan salt to water can help balance electrolytes.
- Use a thermal water bottle to keep water cool for longer periods of time.
- Not keen on plain water? Add some lemon or water flavoring to encourage consumption.
- Sodas, coffee, and energy drinks are not appropriate fluids for hydration.
- Vitamin waters, infused water, coconut water, and electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade are good options along with plain ole water!
Rest and shade can go hand in hand. Flaggers spending time exclusively in the heat need more breaks and rest than people working in cooler or shaded environments. Break areas in the shade are provided and if not available, modular break rooms are commonly seen in work zones for workers to take a rest out of the sun. Taking advantage of breaks and cooling down with fluids will actually help workers to adapt to heated working environments.
Some tips for the workplace to reduce heat stress:
- Limit time in the heat with frequent breaks.
- Rotate workers between shaded and sun exposed work zones if possible.
- Increase the number of workers per task.
- Implement a watch system for workers to observe one another for symptoms of heat illness
- Educate workers to conduct self-assessment for heat intolerance.
- Provide water and shaded/air conditioned rest areas
- Utilize light color clothing, UV clothing, reflective gear, hats, SPF, and UV protective eyewear.
- Modify work/rest periods to give the workers a chance to get rid of excess heat.
- Assign new and unacclimatized workers lighter work and longer, more frequent rest periods.
Here are more useful recommendations for employers and employees to help control heat stress.
For more information about heat stress, visit The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Topic Page on heat stress.