A Primer on Working in the Heat

Summer often supplies the best weather to be outdoors. It’s also the busiest time of year for many outdoor industries, from construction to agriculture to hospitality. Though these workplaces are often very pleasant in nice weather, it’s important to recognize that sun and heat exposure can be hazardous without the proper precautions. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), thousands of workers require treatment for heat exposure each year, with some incidences serious enough to cause death.

“Ideally, heat exposure should be limited during the peak midday hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” said Randy Klatt, Safety Management Consultant from workers’ compensation insurance specialist MEMIC. “For many workers, though, outdoor tasks are unavoidable in that stretch of time. By taking some simple precautions and staying mindful of your body’s reactions to the temperature, many heat-related sicknesses, like heat stroke, dehydration, and sunburn, can be avoided.”

Keep yourself safe with these five tips to avoid heat stress on the job.

  1. Plan your day accordingly.  Though limiting direct sun is almost always preferable, there are ways to plan your day effectively when exposure is necessary. Schedule more strenuous work in the morning and late afternoon when it’s cooler. If possible, secure a shady spot nearby your work zone to take breaks. Klatt suggests at least a few minutes out of the sun each hour.
  2. Wear the right gear. If such equipment is safe in your workplace environment, try to wear hot-weather friendly clothing. Light colored, breathable fabrics and hats that shade your face and neck will help to keep you comfortable under the sun’s rays. Eye damage is a concern, too; make sure your pair of sunglasses filters at least 90 percent of ultraviolet (UV) rays.
  3. Apply sunscreen early and often. The benefits of regular sunscreen use are well-documented, but studies continue to show that adults often don’t wear enough, if they wear it at all. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (protecting against UV-A and UV-B rays) with an SPF of at least 15. Apply liberally 30 minutes before going outside, and every two hours thereafter.
  4. Stay hydrated. The more we sweat, the more important it is to replace the fluids our body has lost. Water is perfectly acceptable for short periods outside, but for longer stretches, you may want to consider replenishing your electrolytes with a sports drink. The Center for Disease Control recommends approximately one cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes. Alcohol (of course), caffeine, and sugary drinks are not recommended, as they tend to dehydrate your body.
  5. Assess how you’re feeling on a regular basis. Take the time to rest in the shade for a few minutes every hour and monitor yourself for signs of overexposure and dehydration. If you’re feeling dizzy, nauseated, or extremely fatigued, it’s likely a sign that your body needs a break from heat exposure. Muscle pain or spasms may indicate dehydration or low salt levels.  Don’t ignore these warning signals. Overextending yourself can be a serious health risk.

In the event of heat-related sickness, sit or lie down in a cool spot as soon as possible. Drink plenty of fluids and loosen or remove any heavy or tight clothing you may have on. The amount of time your body takes to rehydrate varies depending on the severity of your heat exposure, but you may require anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. Be careful not to rush yourself. In the event of acute heat sickness like heat strokeoften identified with dizziness, slurred speech, and very hot, dry skin, among other symptomscall 911 or seek emergency medical treatment immediately. These episodes can lead to death.

Working in the summer heat can become a little more bearable with the proper precautions. By remaining responsive to your environment, outfitting yourself with proper equipment, and taking breaks when your body requires them, you can create the groundwork for a productive and safe day in the sun.