Working safely in the heat

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by Daniel Petzold Photography via Flickr, under Creative Commons Licence

As the UK experiences one of the most continually warm and sunny summers on record, many people are turning their attention to the challenges and potential perils of working in heat.

There are a number of potential dangers associated with working in the heat, including:

  • Accidents in the heat.
  • Heat stroke (when the body’s regulatory system fails and body temperature rises too high – this can cause brain damage or death).
  • Heat exhaustion (extreme fatigue caused by a drop in blood pressure due to the loss of fluids and salts in the body).
  • Heat cramps (muscle spasms that result from the loss of large amount of salt and water in the heat).

Interestingly, regulating body temperature in hot conditions not only depends on controllable factors (e.g. wearing appropriate clothing, remaining hydrated, etc.). Success (or otherwise) is also determined to a large degree by the body being acclimatised to the heat. Clearly, living in the UK means that we aren’t generally well versed in the art of working in extreme heat. When a person isn’t used to hot temperatures, the body’s first reaction is often to raise the body’s internal temperature (i.e. to create a fever), which can be dangerous because it increases the pulse rate and puts strain on the heart. The body will then work to bring down the temperature by sweating to cool the body.

Whether or not a person sweats efficiently is dictated by a number of factors such as the level of humidity in the air and whether or not a person’s clothing allows for evaporation. It is also determined by the extent to which the body is used to hot conditions – bodies that aren’t acclimatised to the heat often produce sweat that can be high in salt, which depletes the body of electrolytes.

The other way the body sheds excess heat is by altering the blood circulation. The heart begins to pump more blood into the small blood vessels near the skin’s surface, where the heat of the blood is transferred to the cooler outside environment. If the outside environment is not cooler than body temperature, however, this method is ineffective, and this change in circulation can put extra stress on the heart.

So, whilst this year’s glorious British summer is being lauded by many, it’s clear that it’s not altogether easy for the body to cope with the heat. This is why employers/managers need to ensure that the appropriate precautions are taken to protect those who are working in the heat. For more information on working in high temperatures, or on other work health topics, see the guides on the Health for Work Adviceline knowledge base (e.g. our guide to working in high temperatures) or search our blog.

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One Response to Working safely in the heat

  1. Vicki Filson says:

    It is also important to remember that the high risk activities are in industry. Being hot in an office/sedentary role is less likely to affect health.