The Myth of Heat Illnesses

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Courtesy of Safety Compliance Management, Inc. (SCM)

If you have not already had a safety talk in your workplace about heat stress and related illnesses, you probably will have one in the coming weeks.  Summer is around the corner and temperatures are warming up.  You will probably hear something about becoming acclimated to the heat slowly, and drinking plenty of water.

But if that’s all that you have been told about warm outdoor temperatures and heat illness prevention, then you may have been mislead.  The myth of heat related illnesses is that they only happen when it’s hot outside.  There’s more to it than that!  Here’s a true story to illustrate what we mean.

A few years ago in the month of February, the SCM team was working as Site Safety Officers for a turnaround at a chemical plant.  The outside temperature was below freezing (32 degrees F).  A worker suited up in a chemical protective suit, donned an air-purifying respirator (APR), and got to work in the yard, breaking up materials to discard.  After a relatively short period of time, around 10 minutes, the worker realized he was having some sort of a medical issue.  The on-site rescue team was called.  As they pealed off the chemical suit, and the multiple layers of clothing he had worn trying to stay warm, it was discovered that the worker had a severe case of heat exhaustion.  The worker’s activity was causing his body temperature to rise, but all the clothing was preventing any air to reach him, and without the evaporation of his sweat, he was overheating.

Often we have a misconception that the word “heat” in heat related illness refers to the outside temperature.  And it does, in that for people who work outside, a warmer environment can increase the risk of heat related illnesses.  But the word “heat” also refers to body temperature.  If your body is able to cool itself or be cooled by drinking water and sitting in the shade, then you can control your body temperature.  It is the temperature of your body that determines whether you have a heat related illness.  The example we just related happened on a cold winter day.  And yet, because the worker’s body temperature increased, he experienced heat exhaustion, a serious heat related illness.

Protective equipment and work activities are factors to keep in mind when considering controls for the risk of heat related illnesses.  Another factor to keep in mind can be internal.  There are some personal risk factors such as diseases and some medications that can increase a person’s risk of heat related illnesses.  Some chronic illnesses such as heart and lung disease can increase your susceptibility to heat illnesses, as do some medications such beta blockers for high blood pressure.

Your safety tips for today are the following:

  • Be aware that wearing protective equipment increases the likelihood of heat related illnesses, whether it is a warm day or not.  When it is predicted that it will be a warm day, be even more aware if you will be wearing such equipment and take all precautions to beat the heat through staying hydrated, and taking advantage of preventative breaks when possible.
  • If you have a preexisting condition or take medication that might increase your susceptibility to heat illnesses, or you are prescribed a new medication, discuss with your physician whether working in the heat is advisable.  And let your supervisor or someone know about your condition or medication, so that additional precautions can be taken for your safety.
  • Learn the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses.  Watch for those signs and symptoms in others and yourself.  When you are working in the heat and feel that you are becoming overheated, request a break, drinking plenty of cool water.
  • If you want to learn more about heat related illnesses, we invite you to review the links to the right.

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