Working outdoors in Texas in the summertime heat may be a hazard for agricultural workers. Discomfort is not the only disadvantage of working in high temperatures and high humidity. The responsibility for protecting those who work in hot environmental conditions from heat stress belongs to both the employer and the individual.
Humans are warm-blooded, which means we maintain a fairly constant internal body temperature. The human body is like a furnace, meaning we burn fuel (food), which manufactures heat. To safely limit internal temperatures, our bodies must shed excess heat. This is accomplished through varying the rate and depth of blood circulation through sweating.
Heat loss from increased skin blood circulation is usually enough to stabilize deep body temperature. If this is not adequate, the brain senses continued overheating and signals the sweat glands to shed large quantities of perspiration. By sweating, the body dispenses most of the body’s heat.
When environmental conditions increase during summer months and these temperatures approach the normal skin temperature, it may become increasingly difficult for the body to cool itself. If the air temperatures are at or warmer than the skin temperature, the blood brought to the surface of the skin may have a difficult time shedding heat. Heat stress may be a concern.
In hot environmental conditions, safety problems may arise. Workers may experience heat stroke, heat cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion or a heat rash. Heat stroke is the most serious. This occurs when the human heat-regulating system simply breaks down under the stress, and sweating stops. There may be little warning to those affected. A heat stroke victim’s skin may be hot, dry and red or spotted. The body temperature may rise well above normal ranges.
Heat exhaustion is a condition caused by either loss of fluid in sweating, loss of salt, or both. The worker still sweats, but experiences extreme weakness or fatigue, giddiness, nausea or headache. In more serious cases, the victim may vomit or lose consciousness. The skin may become clammy and moist with a pale or flushed appearance to the complexion.
Heat cramps, fainting and heat rash may also be signs to watch for during hot conditions. Humans working in hot conditions may become accustomed to the heat. This may take about a week as the body undergoes a series of changes that make heat more endurable. On the first day of work in a hot environment, the body temperature, pulse rate and general discomfort will increase. With each succeeding daily exposure, these will gradually decrease. The worker’s body will begin to adjust.
Preventing heat stress may be something employers and individuals will need to monitor. Steps to prevent heat stress may be to temporarily make the work easier, decrease the speed at which the work is performed and increase the frequency or duration of rest periods. This may require postponing certain jobs until conditions allow the job to be performed in a cooler part of the day or evening.
Employers may put more workers on certain jobs to get them completed during hot environmental conditions, working at a good pace to prevent heat stress. The employer may also provide more rest periods in places with cool surroundings.
Drinking plenty of water or fluids is important with work in hot environmental conditions. During a day’s work in the heat, an individual may sweat away as much as 3 gallons of fluid. Most workers drink less than they should because thirst is satisfied before the body’s water requirements are met. A worker should not depend on thirst to signal when to drink more fluids. The worker should drink more than enough fluids to satisfy thirst every 15 to 20 minutes.
The most stressful tasks should be performed during cooler parts of the day, which may be early morning or late evening. Protective clothing also may aid in the body’s regulation of heat. Loose-fitting clothes made of thin cotton fabric may be considered, as this allows air flow through the clothing to help cool the body as it sweats. Tight-fitting clothing made of woven fabrics may prevent air flow to the body.
These are just some suggestions to aid workers and employers during extreme hot environmental conditions. Each work situation will vary, especially in the agriculture industry. Farming is an inherently dangerous occupation, primarily because of the number and variety of hazards that exist. Heat stress may be a hazard of working outdoors if steps are not taken to prevent it.