Stay healthy while working in the summer heat
Summer heat can be oppressive if you work where it’s hard to avoid the heat, like a bakery, a garden centre, a house roof, an outdoor food stand, or even if you’re in an office where the AC has conked out.
Whatever the situation, it’s important to ensure your employees (and you!) stay healthy when a heat wave cranks up the temperature. You should also be aware of your obligations under your province’s labour laws; for example, in New Brunswick, employers must ensure workers have frequent access to fresh drinking water when exposed to heat.
What makes a worksite hot?
Assuming this isn’t your first year in operation, you probably already know if your worksite gets too hot in the summer. Some factors that influence working temperatures are:
- industries, like bakeries or commercial kitchens
- equipment, like computer servers and heavy machinery
- working in direct sunlight during summer
If you’re curious to know just how hot your office gets while people are working, you can use Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), an index used to measure heat. The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has a threshold limit value for heat stress based on this test.
Perhaps more familiar is the Humidex, which suggests what the air feels like, taking into account temperature combined with the humidity. This will be your best measurement when working outdoors. Meteorologists report the Humidex to warn the public when it’s uncomfortably and even dangerously hot, to a point where outdoor activities become hazardous. Local news sources give the Humidex for your region when it reaches a danger zone.
Wearing masks in the heat
If you or your staff are wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this summer, you’re probably aware of how uncomfortable it can be in the heat. Masks that become wet, either through humidity or sweat, can make it more difficult to breathe (it’s not just your imagination). And yes, the skin on your face that a mask covers does become hotter.
The combo of a mask and a hot day could be distracting enough to cause an accident, for example, when a staff member is operating a truck. According to Michael Puccini, Occupational Hygiene Consultant in Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) agency, "While the use of face coverings, masks, face shields, gloves, and eye protection may not increase core body temperature—a warning sign for heat stress—workers may still feel hot and uncomfortable when wearing them. This could distract them from their tasks and present a safety hazard."
One solution to feeling uncomfortable while wearing a mask in hot weather is to swap wet masks frequently. Otherwise, typical policies for working in hot weather apply: tell employees to take 5- or 10-minute cooling breaks and drink H2O.
Signs of heat stress
People who are otherwise healthy can experience difficulty working in the heat. But the risk, and effects, of heat stress is elevated for workers who are pregnant, older, have chronic conditions like heart disease or breathing difficulties, or who take certain medications. Drugs like alcohol and cannabis can also leave people vulnerable to heat stress.
A little knowledge goes a long way, so make sure your employees can recognize the symptoms of heat stress, as described by WorkSafe New Brunswick:
- Heat rash: "prickly heat rash," tiny, raised blister-like rash on the skin
- Heat cramps: painful muscle spasms and excessive sweating
- Heat exhaustion: headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and clammy skin
- Heat syncope: fainting while standing
- Heat stroke: severe headache, confusion, delirium, convulsions, loss of consciousness and hot, dry, flushed skin
If you have more than one employee, try to pair staff in a buddy system. A co-worker is more likely to notice if someone behaves strangely than the person who suffers from heat stress.
Manage to prevent heat stress
As the boss, it’s your responsibility to manage the workplace to help prevent heat stress in your staff. There are several ways to do this:
- Give new employees time to get acclimated to working in the heat by initially minimizing, then gradually increasing the amount of time spent in hot working conditions. The same applies to employees who return from vacations or days off.
- Plan to complete physically demanding work in the coolest part of the day.
- Have workers drink plenty of water and eat nutritious food as fuel; discourage caffeine intake.
- Encourage staff to wear light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing made of breathable fabric.
- When possible, encourage staff to sport a wide-brimmed hat outdoors. If a hard hat is required, attach a light-coloured fabric to the back and sides to shade the person’s neck.
- Instruct workers to take frequent rest breaks in a cool or ventilated area. Schedule more breaks during the hottest part of the day or when doing heavy work. Tell everyone to allow their body to cool down before they begin again.
- Encourage staff to wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and wear eyewear that provides UV protection.
Working in the summer heat isn’t always pleasant, but health guidelines can go a long way to help employees stay safe while they keep your business humming.