NIOSH Publication No. 86-112:
Working in Hot Environments
From iron workers to pastry bakers, Americans work in a wide variety of hot or hot and humid environments. Being uncomfortable is not the major problem with working in high temperatures and humidities. Workers who are suddenly exposed to working in a hot environment face additional and generally avoidable hazards to their safety and health. The employer should provide detailed instructions on preventive measures and adequate protection necessary to prevent heat stress.
From iron workers to pastry bakers, Americans work in a wide variety of hot or hot and humid environments:
Being uncomfortable is not the major problem with working in high temperatures and humidities. Workers who are suddenly exposed to working in a hot environment face additional and generally avoidable hazards to their safety and health. The employer should provide detailed instructions on preventive measures and adequate protection necessary to prevent heat stress.
The human body, being warm blooded, maintains a fairly constant internal temperature, even though it is being exposed to varying environmental temperatures. To keep internal body temperatures within safe limits, the body must get rid of its excess heat, primarily through varying the rate and amount of blood circulation through the skin and the release of fluid onto the skin by the sweat glands. These automatic responses usually occur when the temperature of the blood exceeds 98.6oF and are kept in balance and controlled by the brain. In this process of lowering internal body temperature, the heart begins to pump more blood, blood vessels expand to accommodate the increased flow, and the microscopic blood vessels (capillaries) which thread through the upper layers of the skin begin to fill with blood. The blood circulates closer to the surface of the skin, and the excess heat is lost to the cooler environment.
If heat loss from increased blood circulation through the skin is not adequate, the brain continues to sense overheating and signals the sweat glands in the skin to shed large quantities of sweat onto the skin surface. Evaporation of sweat cools the skin, eliminating large quantities of heat from the body.
As environmental temperatures approach normal skin temperature, cooling of the body becomes more difficult. If air temperature is as warm as or warmer than the skin, blood brought to the body surface cannot lose its heat. Under these conditions, the heart continues to pump blood to the body surface, the sweat glands pour liquids containing electrolytes onto the surface of the skin and the evaporation of the sweat becomes the principal effective means of maintaining a constant body temperature. Sweating does not cool the body unless the moisture is removed from the skin by evaporation. Under conditions of high humidity, the evaporation of sweat from the skin is decreased and the body's efforts to maintain an acceptable body temperature may be significantly impaired. These conditions adversely affect an individual's ability to work in the hot environment. With so much blood going to the external surface of the body, relatively less goes to the active muscles, the brain, and other internal organs; strength declines; and fatigue occurs sooner than it would otherwise. Alertness and mental capacity also may be affected. Workers who must perform delicate or detailed work may find their accuracy suffering, and others may find their comprehension and retention of information lowered.
Certain safety problems are common to hot environments. Heat tends to promote accidents due to the slipperiness of sweaty palms, dizziness, or the fogging of safety glasses. Wherever there exists molten metal hot surfaces, steam, etc., the possibility of burns from accidental contact also exists.
Aside from these obvious dangers, the frequency of accidents, in general appears to be higher in hot environments than in more moderate environmental conditions. One reason is that working in a hot environment lowers the mental alertness and physical performance of an individual. Increased body temperature and physical discomfort promote irritability, anger, and other emotional states which sometimes cause workers to overlook safety procedures or to divert attention from hazardous tasks.
Excessive exposure to a hot work environment can bring about a variety of heat-induced disorders.
Heat stroke is the most serious of health problems associated with working in hot environments. It occurs when the body's temperature regulatory system fails and sweating becomes inadequate. The body's only effective means of removing excess heat is compromised with little warning to the victim that a crisis stage has been reached.
A heat stroke victim's skin is hot, usually dry, red or spotted. Body temperature is usually 105oF or higher, and the victim is mentally confused, delirious, perhaps in convulsions, or unconscious. Unless the victim receives quick and appropriate treatment, death can occur.
Any person with signs or symptoms of heat stroke requires immediate hospitalization. However, first aid should be immediately administered. This includes removing the victim to a cool area, thoroughly soaking the clothing with water, and vigorously fanning the body to increase cooling. Further treatment at a medical facility should be directed to the continuation of the cooling process and the monitoring of complications which often accompany the heat stroke. Early recognition and treatment of heat stroke are the only means of preventing permanent brain damage or death.
Heat exhaustion includes several clinical disorders having symptoms which may resemble the early symptoms of heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is caused by the loss of large amounts of fluid by sweating, sometimes with excessive loss of salt. A worker suffering from heat exhaustion 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 is clammy and moist, the complexion is pale or flushed, and the body temperature is normal or only slightly elevated.
In most cases, treatment involves having the victim rest in a cool place and drink plenty of liquids. Victims with mild cases of heat exhaustion usually recover spontaneously with this treatment. Those with severe cases may require extended care for several days. There are no known permanent effects.
CAUTION: Persons with heart problems or those on a low sodium diet who work in hot environments should consult a physician about what to do under these conditions.
Heat cramps are painful spasms of the muscles that occur among those who sweat profusely in heat, drink large quantities of water, but do not adequately replace the body's salt loss. The drinking of large quantities of water tends to dilute the body's fluids, while the body continues to lose salt. Shortly thereafter, the low salt level in the muscles causes painful cramps. The affected muscles may be part of the arms, legs, or abdomen, but tired muscles (those used in performing the work) are usually the ones most susceptible to cramps. Cramps may occur during or after work hours and may be relived by taking salted liquids by mouth.
CAUTION: Persons with heart problems or those on a low low sodium diet who work in hot environments should consult a physician about what to do under these conditions.
A worker who is not accustomed to hot environments and who stands erect and immobile in the heat may faint. With enlarged blood vessels in the skin and in the lower part of the body due to the body's attempts to control internal temperature, blood may pool there rather than return to the heart to be pumped to the brain. Upon lying down, the worker should soon recover. By moving around, and thereby preventing blood from pooling, the patient can prevent further fainting.
Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, is likely to occur in hot, humid environments where sweat is not easily removed from the surface of the skin by evaporation and the skin remains wet most of the time. The sweat ducts become plugged, and a skin rash soon appears. When the rash is extensive or when it is complicated by infection, prickly heat can be very uncomfortable and may reduce a worker's performance. The worker can prevent this condition by resting in a cool place part of each day and by regularly bathing and drying the skin.
Transient heat fatigue refers to the temporary state of discomfort and mental or psychologic strain arising from prolonged heat exposure. Workers unaccustomed to the heat are particularly susceptible and can suffer, to varying degrees, a decline in task performance, coordination, alertness, and vigilance. The severity of transient heat fatigue will be lessened by a period of gradual adjustment to the hot environment (heat acclimatization).
One of the best ways to reduce heat stress on workers is to minimize heat in the workplace. However, there are some work environments where heat production is difficult to control, such as when furnaces or sources of steam or water are present in the work area or when the workplace itself is outdoors and exposed to varying warm weather conditions.
Humans are, to a large extent, capable of adjusting to the heat. This adjustment to heat, under normal circumstances, usually takes about 5 to 7 days, during which time the body will undergo a series of changes that will make continued exposure to heat more endurable.
On the first day of work in a hot environment, the body temperature, pulse rate, and general discomfort will be higher. With each succeeding daily exposure, all of these responses will gradually decrease, while the sweat rate will increase. When the body becomes acclimated to the heat, the worker will find it possible to perform work with less strain and distress.
Gradual exposure to heat gives the body time to become accustomed to higher environmental temperatures. Heat disorders in general are more likely to occur among workers who have not been given time to adjust to working in the heat or among workers who have been away from hot environments and who have gotten accustomed to lower temperatures. Hot weather conditions of the summer are likely to affect the worker who is not acclimatized to heat. Likewise, workers who return to work after a leisurely vacation or extended illness may be affected by the heat in the work environment. Whenever such circumstances occur, the worker should be gradually reacclimatized to the hot environment.
Many industries have attempted to reduce the hazards of heat stress by introducing engineering controls, training workers in the recognition and prevention of heat stress, and implementing work-rest cycles. Heat stress depends, in part, on the amount of heat the worker's body produces while a job is being performed. The amount of heat produced during hard, steady work is much higher than that produced during intermittent or light work. Therefore, one way of reducing the potential for heat stress is to make the job easier or lessen its duration by providing adequate rest time. Mechanization of work procedures can often make it possible to isolate workers from the heat sources (perhaps in an air-conditioned booth) and increase overall productivity by decreasing the time needed for rest. Another approach to reducing the level of heat stress is the use of engineering controls which include ventilation and heat shielding.
Rather than be exposed to heat for extended periods of time during the course of a job, workers should, wherever possible, be permitted to distribute the workload evenly over the day and incorporate work-rest cycles. Work-rest cycles give the body an opportunity to get rid of excess heat, slow down the production of internal body heat, and provide greater blood flow to the skin.
Workers employed outdoors are especially subject to weather changes. A hot spell or a rise in humidity can create overly stressful conditions. The following practices can help to reduce heat stress:
A variety of engineering controls can be introduced to minimize exposure to heat. For instance, improving the insulation on a furnace wall can reduce its surface temperature and the temperature of the area around it. In a laundry room, exhaust hoods installed over those sources releasing moisture will lower the humidity in the work area. In general the simplest and least expensive methods of reducing heat and humidity can be accomplished by:
Providing cool rest areas in hot work environments considerably reduces the stress of working in those environments. There is no conclusive information available on the ideal temperature for a rest area. However, a rest area with a temperature near 76/F appears to be adequate and may even feel chilly to a hot, sweating worker, until acclimated to the cooler environment. The rest area should be as close to the workplace as possible. Individual work periods should not be lengthened in favor of prolonged rest periods. Shorter but frequent work-rest cycles are the greatest benefit to the worker.
In the course of a day's work in the heat, a worker may produce as much as 2 to 3 gallons of sweat. Because so many heat disorders involve excessive dehydration of the body, it is essential that water intake during the workday be about equal to the amount of sweat produced. Most workers exposed to hot conditions drink less fluids than needed because of an insufficient thirst drive. A worker, therefore, should not depend on thirst to signal when and how much to drink. Instead, the worker should drink 5 to 7 ounces of fluids every 15 to 20 minutes to replenish the necessary fluids in the body. There is no optimum temperature of drinking water, but most people tend not to drink warm or very cold fluids as readily as they will cool ones. Whatever the temperature of the water, it must be palatable and readily available to the worker. Individual drinking cups should be provided--never use a common drinking cup.
Heat acclimatized workers lose much less salt in their sweat than do workers who are not adjusted to the heat. The average American diet contains sufficient salt for acclimatized workers even when sweat production is high. If, for some reason, salt replacement is required, the best way to compensate for the loss is to add a little extra salt to the food. Salt tablets should not be used.
CAUTION: Persons with heart problems or those on a low sodium diet who work in hot environments should consult a physician about what to do under these conditions.
Clothing inhibits the transfer of heat between the body and the surrounding environment. Therefore, in hot jobs where the air temperature is lower than skin temperature, wearing clothing reduces the body's ability to lose heat into the air.
When air temperature is higher than skin temperature, clothing helps to prevent the transfer of heat from the air to the body. However, this advantage may be nullified if the clothes interfere with the evaporation of sweat.
In dry climates, adequate evaporation of sweat is seldom a problem. In a dry work environment with very high air temperatures, protective clothing could be an advantage to the worker. The proper type of clothing depends on the specific circumstance. Certain work in hot environments may require insulated gloves, insulated suits, reflective clothing, or infrared reflecting face shields. For extremely hot conditions, thermally conditioned clothing is available. One such garment carries a self-contained air conditioner in a backpack, while another is connected a compressed air source which feeds cool air into the jacket or coveralls through a vortex tube. Another type of garment is a plastic jacket which has pockets that can be filled with dry ice or containers of ice.
The key to preventing excessive heat stress is educating the employer and worker on the hazards of working in heat and the benefits of implementing proper controls and work practices. The employer should establish a program designed to acclimatize workers who must be exposed to hot environments and provide necessary work-rest cycles and water to minimize heat stress.
During unusually hot weather conditions lasting longer than 2 days, the number of heat illnesses usually increases. This is due to several factors, such as progressive body fluid deficit, loss of appetite (and possible salt deficit), buildup of heat in living and work areas, and breakdown of air-conditioning equipment. Therefore, it is advisable to make a special effort to adhere rigorously to the above preventive measures during these extended hot spells and to avoid any unnecessary or unusual stressful activity. Sufficient sleep and good nutrition are important for maintaining a high level of heat tolerance. Workers who may be at a greater risk of heat illnesses are the obese, the chronically ill, and older individuals.
When feasible, the most stressful tasks should be performed during the cooler parts of the day (early morning or at night). Double shifts and overtime should be avoided whenever possible. Rest periods should be extended to alleviate the increase in the body heat load.
The consumption of alcoholic beverages during prolonged periods of heat can cause additional dehydration. Persons taking certain medications (e.g., medications for blood pressure control, diuretics, or water pills) should consult their physicians in order to determine if any side effects could occur during excessive heat exposure. Daily fluid intake must be sufficient to prevent significant weight loss during the workday and over the workweek.
Mention of the name of any company or product does not constitute endorsement by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The purpose of this revised pamphlet is to provide employers and workers with an overview of the health hazards associated with work in hot environments, and to alert them to the precautions which should be taken to prevent injuries and other health problems due to heat stress.
The information contained in this publication is in the public domain and may be reproduced without further request. Appropriate source citation, while not required, would be appreciated.
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DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 86 –112
April1986, Reprinted 1992, with minor changes.
This publication is a revision of the 1980 pamphlet entitled "Hot Environments, " formerly DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 80-132.