Beating the Heat at Work

By Beth Mirza May 31, 2012

With record-setting high temperatures occurring around the U.S., outdoor workers need water, rest and shade to make it to the end of their workday safely.

“For outdoor workers, ‘water, rest and shade’ are three words that can make the difference between life and death,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis in a news release. “If employers take reasonable precautions and look out for their workers, we can beat the heat.”

Water, rest and shade can help prevent many heat illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Hard work in hot weather can raise body temperatures higher than the body can cool itself by sweating. Heat illness might manifest initially as heat rash or heat cramps but can become heat exhaustion and then heat stroke quickly, the news release said.

Employees outdoors in the early summer might have more trouble with heat than they will later in the summer. Their bodies must acclimatize to the sudden heat, according to a Washington Post infographic. Different people get used to the heat at different times: Most young, healthy people who increase their exposure to the hot weather gradually should be acclimatized fully within 14 days. People who are not used to strenuous activity and who exercise sporadically might take longer to adapt.

Signs and Symptoms

Be on the lookout for these symptoms of heat illness, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

  • Sunburn: Redness and pain. In severe cases, swelling of skin, blisters, fever and headaches. First Aid: Ointments for mild cases if blisters appear and do not break. If breaking occurs, apply dry sterile dressing.
  • Heat cramps: Painful spasms usually in the muscles of legs and abdomen with heavy sweating. First Aid: Firm pressure on cramping muscles or gentle massage to relieve spasm. Give sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue water.
  • Heat exhaustion: Heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale, clammy skin; thready pulse; fainting and vomiting but might have normal temperature. First Aid: Get victim out of sun. Once inside, the person should lay down and loosen his or her clothing. Apply cool, wet cloths. Fan or move victim to air conditioned room. Offer sips of water. If nausea occurs, discontinue water. If vomiting continues, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Heat stroke (or sunstroke): High body temperature (106° F or higher), hot dry skin, rapid and strong pulse, possible unconsciousness. First Aid: Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency. Summon emergency medical assistance or get the victim to a hospital immediately. Delay can be fatal. While waiting for emergency assistance, move the victim to a cooler environment and reduce body temperature with cold bath or sponging. Use extreme caution. Remove clothing, use fans and air conditioners. If temperature rises again, repeat process. Do NOT give fluids. Persons on salt restrictive diets should consult a physician before increasing their salt intake.

For more information contact a local American Red Cross chapter.

Follow these tips to prevent heat illness:

  • Drink water often, take breaks and limit time in the heat.
  • Build up to heavy work gradually in hot conditions. Help workers become acclimated, especially workers who are new to working outdoors in the heat or have been away from work for a week or more. Gradually increase workloads and allow more frequent breaks during the first week of work.
  • Slow down. Reduce, eliminate or reschedule strenuous activities until the coolest time of the day.
  • Dress for summer. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing to reflect heat and sunlight.
  • Put less fuel on inner fires. Foods such as meat and other proteins that increase metabolic heat production also increase water loss.
  • Drink plenty of water and nonalcoholic and decaffeinated fluids. Your body needs water to keep cool. Drink plenty of fluids even if you don’t feel thirsty. Persons who have epilepsy or heart, kidney or liver disease, who are on fluid restrictive diets or who have a problem with fluid retention should consult a physician before increasing their consumption of fluids. Do not drink alcoholic beverages; limit caffeinated beverages.

“It is essential for workers and employers to take proactive steps to stay safe in extreme heat and become aware of symptoms of heat exhaustion before they get worse,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, in a statement. “Agriculture workers; building, road and other construction workers; utility workers; baggage handlers; roofers; landscapers; and others who work outside are all at risk. Drinking plenty of water and taking frequent breaks in cool, shaded areas are incredibly important in the hot summer months.”

Pay Attention to the Heat Index

Over the Memorial Day weekend in 2012, cities in the Midwest recorded temperatures over 90 degrees—including Chicago at 95 degrees, Detroit at 95 degrees and Cleveland at 93 degrees. In the East, Washington, D.C., hit 90 degrees, but with the heat index (how hot it really feels as the relative humidity levels increase), the “feels like” temperature scooted into the mid-90s.

The heat index can make all the difference in how safe it is to work outside on a given day, according to NOAA. The National Weather Service, a division of NOAA, uses the heat index to determine whether to issue watches, warnings and advisories for excessive heat.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a free app for Android-based mobile devices and iPhone devices that enable workers and supervisors to monitor the heat index at their worksites. According to a news release, the app displays a risk level for workers based on the heat index as well as reminders about protective measures that should be taken at that risk level. English and Spanish versions are available; download the app at

Office Workers

Employees who work indoors aren’t immune to the effects of high temps. Disagreements abound about how to set the office thermostat. OSHA does not offer a rule or regulation on the matter. Generally, “office temperatures and humidity are matters of human comfort,” officials said. However, because of many queries about the topic, OSHA issued a memo in 2003, stating, “OSHA recommends temperature control in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20-60 percent.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at


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