Be Cool: How to Beat Extreme Heat at Work
Hot weather isn’t the norm in Canada—But for a couple beautiful months a year, it actually gets hot outside. Even though we’re excited, this can be a safety issue sometimes.
Here are some tips that both employers and employees can use to keep cool, comfortable, and therefore safe when the weather rises.
When working in extreme heat, you’re at risk of nausea, sunburn (which can be nastier than you think), heat stroke, heat rash & more.
Read on to learn more about what heat stroke does to your body, what employers & employees can do to prevent it, symptoms of heat-related issues to look for and how to treat your body when you do overheat.
WHAT HEAT DOES TO YOUR BODY
Heat does more than give you a burn (that’s bad, too—we’ll get into that later) and can result in vomiting. fainting, and even death.
A healthy, normal human body maintains an internal temperature of 37°C, and generally feels most comfortable with an air temperature between 20°C-27°C, and humidity ranges from 35 to 60%.
The body’s temperature doesn’t normally drop or rise 1° throughout the day, and usually only happens when the body experiences illness or unusual environmental conditions, but heat still has negative effects on the body. Differences less than 1°C in a human’s internal body temperature are normal and can fluctuate depending on the time of day, amount of physical activity and even your mood.
As the external environment warms, the body warms, too. Your ‘internal thermostat’ will introduce more blood to your skin and produce more sweat. This means the body increases the amount of heat it loses to make sense of the heat burden.
When environments are hot, the rate of ‘heat gain’ is more than the rate of ‘heat loss’ and the body temperature begins to rise. This rise results in heat illnesses.
When your body begins to heat up too much, you may become:
- Unable to focus or concentrate on mental tasks
- Loss of ability to do skilled tasks or heavy work
Over-exposure to heat can lead to:
- Heat Edema: Swelling (typically in the ankles) caused by work in hot environments.
- Heat Rashes: Inflammation, which causes tiny red spots that prickle during heat exposure due to clogged sweat glands.
- Heat Cramps: You might feel sharp pains in muscles in addition to the other symptoms of heat stress we list above. Cramps from heat are caused when your body fails to replace lost sweat with salt, and often happen when you drink too much water and don’t replace it with enough salt (electrolytes).
- Heat Exhaustion: Caused when you lose body water and salt from excessive sweating. Symptoms involve heavy sweat, weakness, dizziness, visual disturbances, intense thirst, nausea, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle cramps, breathlessness, palpitations, tingling and numb hands & feet.
- Heat Syncope: Heat-induced dizziness and fainting caused by insufficient blood flow to the brain while someone is standing. This usually happens when people aren’t used to an environment (are unacclimatized) and your body loses body fluids through sweat, blood pressure lowers & blood pools in the legs. Luckily, recovery is very quick when you simply rest in a cool area.
- Heat Stroke: This is the most serious type of heat illness. Signs of heat stroke include a body temperature over 41°C and complete/partial loss of consciousness. There are two types of heat stress, one where the victim does not sweat and the other, where they do sweat.
HEAT STROKE: WHAT EMPLOYERS CAN DO
As an employer, you have a responsibility to create the most safe environment for workers as possible.
Employers of workplaces under federal jurisdiction have responsibility under clause 25(2)(h) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker. This includes precautions to protect workers while working in heat, or with processes that use heat.
It’s important to note that work in heat can impact all sorts of workplaces, not just those outside. Workplaces like industrial kitchens or any other place that burns fuel, particularly in an area that could become enclosed—Warehouse shipping & receiving areas are a good example of this.
As an employer, you should provide:
- Training, instruction & supervision to perform their jobs safely: This includes providing employees an understanding of overall work procedures, how to use workplace tools & equipment, knowledge about foreseeable workplace hazards and giving them documentation when training is delivered.
- Health & Safety Committees: Employers under federal jurisdiction with a certain amount of employees (the number varies province-to-province) and have a responsibility to establish a workplace health & safety committee, which is considered an important part of the internal responsibility system. In organizations with 300 employees or more, a Policy Health & Safety Committee must be established. Policy Health & Safety committees serve to change issues that can’t be dealt with by individual health & safety committees. In workplaces with 20 or fewer employers, a health & safety representative should be established.
- Investigation: Employers must investigate employee complaints and accident/injury incidents. They must report serious incidents to the Labour Program within 24 hours, and must report temporary or permanent disabling industries within 14 days of it happening.
- Inspection: Inspections must be conducted to ensure health & safety issues are taken care of before they can cause injuries.
Here are some things employers & employees can do to make work in heat more comfortable:
- Use fans or other mechanical cooling measures
- Wear light, loose fitting clothing
- Increase break frequency and reduce laborious physical activity when peak temperatures emerge
- Drink cold beverages without salt, caffeine or alcohol, which can dehydrate you
- Implement measures to create shade—For example, umbrellas, screens or tents
HEAT STROKE: WHAT EMPLOYEES CAN DO
Employees have responsibility and say when it comes to protecting themselves from the heat.
For employees, Part 2 of the Canada Labour Code details some duties employees must take to protect themselves at work.
These are duties Canadian employees must take (for all types of work) to stay safe:
USE IT OR LOSE IT
- Use all safety materials, equipment, devices, and clothing that are provided by the employer and are intended to protect employees.
- Follow procedures & instructions relating to the health and safety of employees.
DON’T BE A NEGATIVE NELLY
- Co-operate with any person carrying out a duty or function required by the Code.
IT’S NOT TATTLING IF YOU SAVE A LIFE
- Report to the employer any thing or circumstance that is likely to be hazardous to employees or any other person in the workplace, report to the employer all work-related accidents, occupational diseases, or other hazardous occurrences that have caused injury to you or any other person, and report to the employer any situation you believe to be a contravention of Part II of the Code by the employer, another employee, or any other person.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS
- Comply with every oral or written direction given by a health and safety officer or an appeals officer.
- Respond in writing to a health and safety officer’s direction or report when requested to do so by the health and safety officer.
Here are some tips & steps employees should take to protect themselves from heat at work:
KNOW THE SIGNS
- Recognize the signs of heat stroke, not just for yourself, but your coworkers, too. People suffering from heat stroke often don’t see their own signs, so being able to notice symptoms in others will help keep everyone onsite safe.
- Symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Dry, hot skin
- Partial to complete loss of consciousness
WORK IN EXTREME TEMPERATURES: LEGISLATION
Like we mention above, legislation can be a bit vague surrounding the rules and regulations on what employers specifically must do to keep employees safe with regards to heat stroke, and often these standards & regulations will differ provincially.
Generally, there is no specific temperature federally in Canada where work can’t be performed, however, the temperature might be a risk factor for potential hazards that make work unsafe to perform. In these cases employers and employees have a responsibility to adjust conditions, or the right to refuse work if the temperature creates hazards.
The reason for this? There are factors that contribute to exposure limit (the time a worker can safely be exposed to a condition like heat) beyond just the temperature. Some of these are:
- Relative humidity
- Exposure to other heat sources
- Air circulation & flow
- Demands of work
- If workers are acclimatized to the workload under the conditions
- If workers have proper clothing & PPE
- Amount of work compared to the amount of breaks
Like we mention above, there isn’t one magic temperature where work is cancelled, but each province does have some legislation that describes temperatures suggested for different workplaces & conditions, particularly those in industrial jobs.
Another way employers, managers or supervisors might determine if the heat can be dangerous is to use TLV® Values. Sometimes these are used as legislation, and sometimes as guidelines provincially.
This table represents the criteria for workers’ exposure to heat stress, and are used as a guideline (and sometimes legislation) for employers to determine when work can be unsafe.
It’s also worth noting that TLV® Values are subject to change annually. Work levels are defined as:
LIGHT WORK: Sitting, standing to control machines, light hand or arm work
MODERATE WORK: Moderate hand & arm work, light pushing or pulling,
HEAVY WORK: Intense arm & trunk work, pick & shovel work, digging, carrying, pushing/pulling heavy loads and walking at a fast pace
VERY HEAVY: Intense activity at fast to maximum pace.
YOU NOTICE THAT SOMEONE HAS THE SIGNS OF HEAT STROKE—WHAT SHOULD I DO?
These are some first aid measures you should use when you see someone suffering from heat-related symptoms.
- Call 911
- Move them to a cooler location with shade
- Stay with the person until help arrives
- Remove shoes, socks & as many clothes as possible
- Apply cool water/cloths to their head, face, neck, armpits & groin
- Do not force the person to drink liquid