As summer draws to a close, employers should remain aware of heat-related hazards workers, especially outdoor workers, still face. Employers also need to know and share how to prevent illness or injury.
Heat-related illness occurs because of the body’s inability to self-regulate its temperature.
The body’s best tool to keep itself from getting too hot is sweat. As sweat evaporates from the skin, it cools, drawing heat from the body and dissipating it. The body must be hydrated to produce sweat. Therefore, a dehydrated worker faces more risk from workplace heat.
However, especially in hot summer months, it may be difficult for some workers to drink enough water while working to sweat enough. If a worker is unable to replace the water he or she loses to evaporation, the worker may become dehydrated, and sweating may become impossible. This will increase the body temperature. As body temperature reaches higher, heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke or heat exhaustion become increasingly likely.
If a worker takes in less water than he or she loses to sweat, breathing, urination and defecation, the worker’s body will become dehydrated. Generally, the body does a good job of keeping fluid levels about right by signaling thirst as needed. However, work often puts demands on the body that make adequate hydration difficult.
Many people go about their lives in a state of slight dehydration. There is no cheap and convenient way for employers to measure worker hydration, but workers themselves can be aware of a few factors other than thirst that point to the need for more water: Taking in fluids only when thirsty is rarely sufficient. Further, when the body doesn’t receive enough water, urine becomes more dense and darker in color. Frequent headaches, dry skin and fatigue also point to low body fluid levels, especially when accompanied by thirst, or experienced after strenuous work and exercise also may indicate dehydration.
While the body can have too much water when electrolyte levels get unbalanced or in the presence of certain medical conditions, most people should be drinking more water.
One of the most effective means to ensure appropriate water intake is eating and drinking during meal breaks. Most fluid ingestion occurs with meals, which is also when the body takes in most of the electrolytes it needs. Skipping a meal not only deprives the worker’s body of the calories it needs, it also deprives the body of fluids to keep itself cool.
Of course, meals alone will not provide enough water. Safety and health organizations recommend workers who face a risk of heat-related illness to drink small amounts of cool, non-alcoholic, liquids frequently — one cup every 20 minutes. However, it is important to recognize that broad guidelines do not necessarily reflect the needs of all workers for all jobs in all environments.
In addition to easy access to clean water, employers should provide rest breaks and bathroom facilities to accommodate fluid intake (and subsequent removal) by workers, and workers should not hesitate to take short water breaks throughout the day to maintain hydration.
Dehydration is the first step to more severe heat related illness. Strenuous labor in hot and/or exceptionally humid environments increases the body’s temperature and its demand for fluids. Employers and workers must plan together to guarantee the body has the fluids it needs to function effectively and stay healthy until the job is done.
The Three B’s of Worker Hydration:
- Beverages: Workers should be provided with sufficient non-alcoholic fluids, ideally water, and clean cups.
- Breaks: Workers should be permitted the time needed to drink enough fluids through the day.
- Bathrooms: Workers need access to sanitary bathroom facilities.