Extreme Heat Survival Tips For Workers
Survive the summer with Construction Week's tips for worker welfare
While other regions look forward to the summer months to provide them with some respite to the cooler winters, summer in the GCC is intense. It drives people indoors, stops construction in its tracks and makes life unbearable for those forced to struggle through power outages and a lack of air-conditioning.
The heat also kills. Though many GCC countries have implemented work bans during peak hours which have helped reduce the risk of accidents, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the risks remain for anyone exposed to the intense summer temperatures for prolonged periods. The work ban has reduced the number of incidents but it will never eliminate the risk entirely.
There are, however, a few simple things that managers and workers themselves can do to help reduce the risks posed by working in extreme temperatures. In all circumstances, prevention is better than a cure - and the measures required are reasonably simple and straight-forward. Well-hydrated workers with good nutrition and reasonable fitness skills rarely suffer, even in the most extreme circumstances - but there is no room for complacency when working in such extreme conditions.
Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F (37 degrees C) and, when you exercise, your temperature increases. It doesn't increase a lot surprisingly - the human body is highly susceptible to fluctuations in core temperature - and your body reacts fairly quickly to any major changes .
Your body has a natural way to maintain a core temp of 98.6. However, if electrolytes and exposure to heat for long periods of time exist, this internal mechanism can be compromised and lead to heat injuries . If untreated, the body will heat uncontrollably and heat stroke will occur-with a 20% mortality.
The body does two things to cool down. It sweats, which cools the skin through evaporation, and it increases blood circulation to the skin surface helps transfer heat to the cooler atmosphere. That why people turn red when they exercise.
Next page:Warning signs
The problem with working in extreme temperatures and humidity is that it doesn't allow the body to cool off using its natural defences too effectively. If ambient temperature is exceptionally high, or clothing restricts the evaporation process, then you'll start to feel sick. The added heat puts a greater strain on your heart as it struggles to pump blood in to the small blood vessels near the skin surface.
If you're not used to working in extreme temperatures, your body is likely to sweat inefficiently. You'll sweat buckets, and the sweat will be high in salt content, which depletes the body of electrolytes and can cause heat exhaustion.
A low salt-or sodium level can cause level of consciousness changes such us dizziness, light headedness and loss of consciousness. If this salt/sodium content in the system is not replaced, death can occur as a result of the brain not utilising cells effectively, the body’s ability to maintain a normal body temperature (thermoregulation) is compromised and the body literally cooks internally out of control.
Unless treated, heat exhaustion (sweating, flushing) will lead to heat stroke - a condition where your sweat mechanism stops. Your heart only pumps blood to vital organs (brain, kidneys and heart) and the body slowly shuts down. This is a medical emergency and unless treated will lead to certain death. The best treated for this is to cool those areas the blood is closest to on the surface of the skin with cool misted water and icepacks to the groin, arm pits and back of neck. Replacement of electrolytes is vital through intravenous infusion.
If you start to feel the following symptoms, it's time to do something about it:
Lack of sweat
Next page: Six simple tips for working in extreme heat
Six simple tips for working in extreme heat
1) Acclimatise yourself
Most workers in the Middle East have experienced extreme heat but local conditions can make all the difference. A worker used to prolonged exposure to sub-tropical heat may suffer when it comes to working in desert conditions. Experts say you can reduce the risk of this happening exposing them to working in a hot environment for progressively longer periods.
2) Replace fluids
Provide plenty of cool water or any cool liquid (except caffeinated beverages like Red Bull, Coke, Mountain Dew) to workers and encourage them to drink small amounts frequently. Ample supplies of liquids should be placed close to the work area.
3) Limit physical demands
Why have your men dig a hole when you can get a machine to do it in a fraction of the time? By reducing physical exertion such as excessive lifting, climbing, or digging with heavy objects, you limit the risk of physical exhaustion. Certain jobs need to be done by hand, so make sure you have plenty of relief workers or assign extra workers, to minimise overexertion.
4) Provide recovery areas
Easier said than done on most construction sites, but air-conditioned enclosures and rooms and provide intermittent rest periods with water breaks certainly help workers to get through the day.
5) Reschedule jobs
The midday work ban takes the sting out of working through the hottest part of the day for most workers in the GCC region, but often “hot” jobs – jobs in the open, or in areas that are particularly unpleasant – can be rescheduled. Early morning, when the cooler night air sweeps through the region, is perfect. Some Bahraini companies have even switched to night shifts but that too comes with additional risks.
6) Monitor others
Particularly those at risk of heat stress, such as those wearing semi-permeable or impermeable clothing when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees.
Next page: Health risks and what to do
Health risks and what to do
Usually caused by performing hard physical labour in hot environments, heat cramps can be traced back to an electrolyte imbalance caused by sweating. Experts say that you should only take salt tablets if directed by your doctor – and that balancing your electrolytes is far better done through eating the right foods. Though painful, no permanent damage is caused by heat cramps.
Symptoms include: muscle cramps, usually after heavy work and when you’ve not topped up your system with adequate vitamins and minerals.
- Drink water or sports drinks
- Eat a banana: they're packed with potassium, one of the key minerals lost when you sweat.
Avoid heat cramps by:
- Drinking water every 15 to 20 minutes. A quick swig of your water bottle every now and then will do. Experts recommend a cup of water three or four times every hour.
- Replacing lost electrolytes by either drinking sports drinks (if possible), or eating fruit rich in vitamins and essential elements. Bananas are perfect, and so too are potato skins or a hand full of raisins.
- Use the salt shaker on the table, just don’t over do it.
Next page: Heat exhaustion
Heat Exhaustion is only partly due to exhaustion; it is a result of the combination of excessive heat and dehydration. It's a relatively common occurrence – and symptoms can escalate very quickly when working in hot environments.
It may be common, but that doesn't mean it's not serious. Any worker not operating at their peak presents a considerable safety risk, particularly when working at height or with heavy machinery and equipment.
It’s not uncommon for someone to work through their symptoms and suddenly succumb to the heat. If this happens, you must act quickly.
- Remove the worker from the hot environment immediately
- Replace lost fluid.
- Worker must rest.
- Where possible, use ice packs to cool the worker down.
- Avoid heat exhaustion by:
- Drinking lots during the day. Think of your skin as your body’s radiator. Water helps cool the skin through evaporation and when it runs out, you start to overheat – much like a car or truck. Keep your water level topped up, and you should be okay. One sports nutritionist puts it rather crudely but succinctly: “If your pee is clear, then you’re drinking enough”.
- Limiting physical exertion.
- Using the midday work break time wisely. Rest when you can. The job is tough enough
- Keeping out of the sun. It sounds obvious, but the difference between sun and shade in the GCC can be as much as 10 degrees.
Next page: Heat stroke
By far the most serious condition any worker may face, and one that requires swift intervention. Heat Stroke is the most serious heat related disorder and occurs when the body's temperature regulation fails and body temperature rises to critical levels. It is a medical emergency that may result in death. You lose the ability to sweat so these victims will be hot and dry and flushed.
Heat Stroke, or hyperthermia (as opposed to hypothermia), occurs when the body temperature reaches 40.6 degrees
The primary signs and symptoms of heat stroke are confusion; irrational behaviour; loss of consciousness; convulsions; a lack of sweating (usually); hot, dry skin; and an abnormally high body temperature. If a worker shows signs of possible heat stroke, professional medical treatment should be obtained immediately.
Until professional medical treatment is available, the worker should be placed in a shady, cool area and the outer clothing should be removed. Douse the worker with cool water and circulate air to improve evaporative cooling. Provide the worker fluids (preferably water) as soon as possible.
- Irrational behaviour
- Loss of consciousness
- Lack of sweating (usually)
- Hot, dry skin
- Abnormally high body temperature
- Get medical help immediately.
- Rapid mechanical cooling of the body is essential.
- Get the worker to a shady/cool area.
- Remove outer clothing.
- Douse worker with cool water and fan/circulate the air to improve cooling.
- Provide worker with water ASAP.
- A conscious victim can be bathed in cool water or a hypothermia vest can be applied.
- Cold compresses to the torso, head, neck, and groin will help.
- A fan or dehumidifying air conditioning unit may be used to aid in evaporation of the water.
- If the victim is unconscious, they will need an intravenous drip to replace lost fluid.
- Constantly monitor the patient’s breathing and heart rate: they could go in to cardiac arrest at any point.
- DON’T immerse victim in very cold water as it causes vasoconstriction in the skin and prevents heat from escaping the body core. A better option is a fan to disperse cool misted air over the entire (exposed) body and ice-packs in vital areas. Very cool water will also shock the heart and potentially cause cardiac arrest.
- DON’T immerse unconscious victim in cool bath unless there are plenty of helpers, and you can support the victim’s head throughout.
- DON’T use alcohol rubs: they will cause further dehydration.
Avoid heat stroke by
- Drinking lots. We can’t say it enough. It’s rare that a worker suffers a heat stroke if they’ve consumed enough water. Drink about a cup of water every 15 minutes.
- Acclimatise yourself. Working in extreme temperatures should be something you build up to. Prepare for hot work 3-4 days prior. If you drink a ton of water the night before working, all you will do is bloat up because your body will retain it.
- Keeping put of the sun. Again, an obvious suggestion, but something many workers ignore.
- Keeping covered. Reduce your fluid loss by covering up: don’t forget your neck and arms.
- Resting. There’s no point spending the midday work break playing cricket if you risk collapsing from exhaustion in the afternoon.
- Avoid heavy meals.
- Wear lightweight, light coloured, loose fitting clothes.
Next page: Water intoxication
Simply replacing water isn't enough.
When working outdoors in the heat, many people drink water to replenish sweat. This is good, to prevent dehydration. However, when you drink excessive amounts of water, you dilute the natural electrolytes such as potassium and sodium. Water intoxication is a real issue in heat injuries.
A case in Los Angeles California occurred a year ago where a lady had to drink 3 gallons of water in a short period of time as part of a challenge. She succeeded and won an iPod. She was dead the next day from water intoxiciation because she had diluted her electrolytes (sodium and potassium) so much that her brain and heart were unable to function.
A good way to prevent this is of course by replacing electrolytes. Salt tablets are a good idea but must be used in moderation. If there is a need for them, be sure to drink water to balance the effects.
Good nutiriton is vital. Medications help replace lost elements but you never absorb 100% of the nutrients. With natural foods, you do.
Foods high in potassium include orange juice (watch sugar content), rasins, bananas. Eating a good solid meal to include vegetables and fruit is a good foundation, while snacking on fresh fruits throughout the day will provide your body with fluids as well as vitamins.
Avoiding sugary drinks is vital too. Sugar will increase urine output and dehydrate. Fizzy drinks also actually stop the body from absorbing some minerals too. Caffeine is a diuretic, so is best avoided altogether.
- Reflective clothing, worn as loosely as possible, can minimise heat stress hazards.
- Damp down clothing with water. It will help cool the body through evaporation
- Water-cooled garments range from a hood, which cools only the head, to vests and "long johns," which offer partial or complete body cooling. Use of this equipment requires a battery-driven circulating pump, liquid-ice coolant, and a container.