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With the Australian summer upon us, we spoke with Casey Hayes, our Occupational Health Manager in Whyalla, about how we can protect ourselves against heat-related illness.
When we start to warm up or are exposed to extreme heat, our bodies do a few things to try and regulate temperature, such as sweating and breathing faster.
In normal conditions, our bodies typically do this effectively. However, the hotter it gets or the longer we are in the heat, the harder it is for our bodies to regulate – to the point we become at risk of serious health problems and in some cases, fatality.
Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur when we are exposed to extreme heat or are working in hot conditions for extended periods and our body can no longer cool itself or function effectively.
Heat stress can lead to heat stroke if not promptly treated.
It occurs when the body is struggling to regulate its temperature to cool itself enough and the body temperature begins to rise.
Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency.
It is when the body has lost its ability to regulate its temperature altogether resulting in the internal body temperature rising. As a result, the body begins to shut down and organ failure will occur.
Various factors can influence the way we are affected by heat:
Acclimatisation is an interesting factor; a person from a cooler climate, or has not had an opportunity to acclimatise to the heat will typically see signs of heat-stress sooner, whereas someone who is acclimatised to warmer temperatures and can better tolerate the heat. However, these people may not be able to notice the symptoms as easily until it’s too late. This is why we need to keep an eye on our work mates.
Environmental factors, such as ventilation, wind/air movement and heat from the sun can affect temperatures. In addition, the nature of our work means we are often exposed to hot equipment and material, as well as steam which can impact air temperature and humidity.
One of the keys here is to keep an eye on each other and step in if you notice one of your work mates acting differently than usual. If you are affected by the heat, you may not notice these yourself.
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One of the best ways to prepare is to start work already hydrated. If you aren’t already hydrated when you start work, you will be trying to catch up all day. Make sure you continue to drink water at home after work, I recommend keeping a bottle of water next to your bed.
Alcohol and caffeine, including energy drinks, can be dehydrating so if you are drinking these you should also be drinking water to counteract the dehydrating effect.
There is a bit of a myth that sports drinks and electrolyte supplements can cause harm – while this is true if you are drinking too much, they certainly have a place if you are working hard, sweating a lot, exercising intensely, and you are drinking them in moderation.
We often hear that plain cool water is the best drink for hydration, however, there is research that points to the effectiveness of icy drinks such as slushy-type drinks, including ice water.
For people who don’t like drinking plain water, I recommend adding a small amount of cordial to flavour the water, because even though these will add a bit of sugar, it is better to drink something than nothing at all. Other options are to add a bit of juice or fruit to your water.
Where possible, plan work to avoid the heat, or at least the hottest part of the day. Talk with your team mates at the start of the shift to plan how you will manage the risk of heat exposure for the shift. Consider rotating people through tasks, especially where heavy manual work or exposure to the sun/heat is required to allow people in the team to cool down and rehydrate. And make sure you have access to plenty of drinking water.
There are several things you can do to make the work environment more comfortable and to minimise heat exposure. These include setting up shade, ventilation and fans.
I recommend taking full advantage to cool down during meal and rest breaks. Sit in air conditioning if you can, whether it’s in a crib room, or a car if you’re in a remote area, and if it’s safe to do so, take off your helmet, boots, gloves, and if possible, even untuck your shirt.
It is important that we are all aware of the signs of heat-related illness, we keep an eye on each other and start the day well hydrated. We know it is going to be a hot summer so take the time to plan your work and be prepared for the heat.
We regularly address the subject of heat stress and hydration during our site toolboxes.