WASHINGTON — Working in hot or hot and humid conditions can place additional and generally avoidable hazards to the health and safety of drycleaning or laundry workers. And during what is typically the hottest time of year in most locales, it’s more important than ever that employers provide detailed instructions on preventive measures and adequate protection necessary to prevent heat stress, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Certain safety problems are common to hot environments. Heat tends to promote accidents due to the slipperiness of sweaty palms, dizziness, or the fogging of safety glasses. Wherever there exists steam, the possibility of burns from accidental contact also exists.
Aside from these obvious dangers, the frequency of accidents, in general, appears to be higher in hot environments. Working in a hot environment lowers mental alertness and physical performance. Increased body temperature and physical discomfort promote irritability, anger and other emotional states, which sometimes cause workers to overlook safety procedures or to divert attention from hazardous tasks.
HEALTH PROBLEMS CAUSED BY HOT ENVIRONMENTS
When the human body is unable to maintain a normal temperature, the following heat-related illnesses can occur and may even result in death if not addressed:
Heat Stroke — This is the most serious heat-related health problem. It occurs when the body’s temperature-regulating system fails and body temperature rises to critical levels. Symptoms can include confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, high body temperature, and hot, dry skin or profuse sweating.
If a worker shows signs of possible heat stroke, call 911 and get emergency help. While awaiting assistance, move the worker to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing, wet the worker with cool water and circulate the air to speed cooling, or place cold, wet cloths over the body or soak the worker’s clothing with cold water.
Heat Exhaustion — This is the next most serious heat-related health problem and can be characterized by these symptoms: headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, heavy sweating, elevated body temperature, and decreased urine output.
Anyone suffering from heat exhaustion should be taken to a clinic or emergency room for evaluation and treatment; call 911 if medical care is not available. Workers should be removed from the hot area and given liquids to drink. Remove unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks. Cool the worker with cold compresses to the head, neck or face, or have him or her wash their head, face and neck with cold water.
Heat Cramps — These are muscle pains usually caused by physical labor in a hot work environment. Cramping is caused by loss of body salts and fluid during sweating.
If a worker shows signs of cramping, direct them to replace fluid loss by drinking water and having a snack, and/or a sports drink every 15-20 minutes; avoid salt tablets. Get medical help if the worker has heart problems, is on a low-sodium diet, or if cramps don’t subside within one hour.
Heat Rash — This is the most common problem in hot work environments. It’s caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. The best treatment is to provide a cooler, less humid work environment. Ointments and creams should not be used on a heat rash; the area should be kept dry, and powder may be applied to increase comfort.
PREVENTING HEAT ILLNESS
The best way to prevent heat illness is to make the work environment cooler.
Train workers and supervisors about the hazards leading to heat illness and ways to prevent them. Train workers to recognize symptoms in themselves and others.
If you have someone who is new to the job or who has been away for more than a week, gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks the first week.
Provide workers with plenty of cool water in convenient, visible locations close to the work area.
Remind workers to frequently drink small amounts of water before they become thirsty to maintain good hydration. During moderate activity, workers should drink about 1 cup every 15-20 minutes. (They should not drink extreme amounts, not more than 12 quarts in a 24-hour period.)
Reduce the physical demands of the job, or reschedule work activities with high heat exposure to cooler times of the day. Schedule more frequent rest periods with water breaks in air-conditioned recovery areas.
Use air conditioning or increased ventilation, if cooler air is available from the outside.
Other methods to reduce indoor temperature include providing reflective shields to redirect radiant heat, insulating hot surfaces, and decreasing water vapor pressure, e.g., by sealing steam leaks and keeping floors dry.
Using fans will improve heat exchange between the skin surface and the air.
To learn more about dealing with heat stress in the workplace, visit cdc.gov/niosh/topics/heatstress.