If you work outside and under the summer sun, you’ve probably noticed those envious looks from passersby who wish they could work outdoors in the nice weather, too. However, just as the sun brings the welcomed heat, it also is responsible for a number of serious and unwelcomed illnesses among outdoor workers, making it important to be aware of the occupational hazards.
When factors such as hot weather and muscle exertion produce heat, your body regulates its own temperature by allowing you to sweat. Moving air also helps to cool you down. In extreme temperatures or under prolonged work periods, however, the body may no longer be able to cool itself, and your health may be at risk.
Heat stroke is a serious and potentially fatal illness. Symptoms can vary from person to person, however, anyone with dry, hot skin, and increased body temperature above 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) could be suffering heat stroke and needs immediate medical help. Loss of consciousness, seizures, altered behaviour, and confusion are also symptoms of heat stroke.
Extreme heat can also bring on heat exhaustion, which occurs when the body becomes dehydrated from excessive sweating. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include moist and warm skin, weakness, dizziness, thirst, nausea or vomiting, headache, fainting, or muscle cramps.
People who are experiencing heat-related illness – particularly heat stroke – often don’t recognize their own symptoms, which is why it’s so important that co-workers know how to recognize symptoms, and that they immediately seek first aid and medical help.
Not all summer hazards are due to heat. Too much sun exposure can cause injury and illness, too, like harm to your eyes, sunburns, and skin cancer. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays cause skin cancer by altering skin cells, and tans and sunburns are both signs that UV rays have damaged the skin. If you have been overexposed to the sun, it’s important to check your skin every few months for irregularities such as sore ulcers, a scaly patch on the skin, a white patch on the lips that doesn’t heal, or moles that grow quickly, change shape or colour, or bleed repeatedly. See a doctor if you see these or any other skin condition that doesn’t heal.
Although it’s important to recognize the symptoms of skin cancer and heat-related illness, it is safer to prevent exposures in the first place. Even when you’re braving the heat for most of your workday, there are ways to protect yourself from overheating, burns, and other health risks.
Avoid the sun. If you’re able to, avoid working in the sun between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the most intense, and plan outdoor work for the early morning or late afternoon. When avoiding the sun isn’t possible, workplaces can rotate workers between site locations to help reduce UV exposure or consider using tents or sunshades to reduce direct sunlight.
Get acclimatized. It sometimes takes six to seven days for the body to fully adapt to working in the heat, so if you’re new or not used to the environment, ease into tasks gradually.
Take frequent breaks and keep hydrated. As an outdoor worker, you need frequent breaks in a cool or well-ventilated area. Drink plenty of water, frequently, to replace the fluids you lose by working in the heat and avoid consuming dehydrating drinks like caffeine or alcohol. Take breaks in a cool area, where possible, including an air-conditioned vehicle.
Wear protective clothing and sunglasses. Wear sunglasses that are UV-rated, ideally with a wrap-around style for the most protection. Cover up as much as possible. Wide-brim hat and loose-fitting clothes made of a light, breathable fabric, are recommended. Although long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants may not be comfortable in extremely hot weather, they do help protect the skin.
Wear sunscreen as extra protection. Cover any exposed, uncovered skin with sunscreen and, when possible, work in shade while wearing suitable clothing, hats and sunglasses. To reduce the sun’s effects, apply sunscreen 20 or 30 minutes before exposure. Wipe it generously onto the skin, but don’t rub it in. Choose a sunscreen that blocks both UV-B and UV-A rays and has a SPF of at least 30 or higher. Reapply it every two hours, especially after strenuous exercise or when your skin is wet.
Have an emergency plan. In a heat-related emergency, quick action could save a life. Employers should have an emergency plan in place for providing timely first aid.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well being of workers in Canada by providing information, training, education, systems and solutions that support health and safety programs and injury and illness prevention.