July 2019 Newsletter:

Exposure to the Canadian elements: Can you take the heat?


From a health and safety perspective, working in hot and humid temperatures is a large concern for employer. Over exposure to such elements can result in dehydration, heat stress, heat stoke, and overall fatigue. From an ergonomic perspective, our muscles generally like the heat as we stay well hydrated. However, it is still important for your ergonomics policy and program to take hot temperature work and heat stress into consideration

With heat stress comes increased fatigue and resultant muscle weakness, which impacts a workerís ability to perform manual work. Naturally, our first instinct is to drink more water and get into a cooler environment to help lower our body temperature but what if we could use ergonomics to continue to work diligently while not succumbing to the stresses of high heat?

Work organization

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To reduce exposure to prolonged durations of working in hot environments, work organization can be implemented throughout the workday. This is likely to take some planning and scheduling, but will allow workers to perform one task or portion of a task before switching gears to something that requires lesser exertion or will allow Operators to address the most highly strenuous jobs during the coolest times of the day.

Consider an example: A Public Works Operator is tasked with pothole patching the roadways. Rather than perform pothole patching for the entirety of the day and document the work completed before the end of their shift, the Operator could organize their work such that they perform a set number of patches, followed by taking a set amount of cool off time to complete the required paperwork while in the air conditioned truck cab, repeating this process for as long as assigned.

Job Rotation

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Many outdoor job sites have more than one worker completing the project at hand, thereby exposing multiple workers to the effects of hot temperatures. However, these workers may be performing varying tasks as part of this project. A well constructed and formalized schedule for job rotation can help to reduce the duration of exposure to high temperatures.

Letís take the above example a step further. That Public Works Operator that is pothole patching is likely to be working in a crew of 2 Operators, rather than solo. So, instead of this one Operator standing in the sun filling every hole, consider having them rotate with the other Operator(s), who spends more time sitting and driving in the cool air-conditioned vehicle.

Movement Reduction

As ergonomists, we often see bad habits and poor work methods being utilized to complete job tasks, which leads to overexertion and strain on the body. Couple that with high temperatures and you are asking your body and brain to do more than it is physically capable of. As such, reducing movement can surely help to mitigate the stress caused from working in hot environments.

Keep in mind, this is the responsibility of all parties to practice. From an Operator perspective, they should be sure to use the appropriate tools and equipment as well as supports and aids (e.g. harnesses, lift assists) to reduce movement and mitigate strain. The employer and management should provide proper training and education, administrative controls (e.g. formal rotation) as well as supervision should be exercised throughout the workday to ensure Operators are abiding by safe work practices.

What else can you do to be safe in high heat? Here are a couple more ideas to consider:

  • Have a heat stress policy with specific recovery breaks
  • Wear lightweight and breathable fabrics
  • Take frequent rest breaks throughout the day
  • Wear sunscreen and other protective aids to mitigate sun exposure (e.g. hats, sunglasses)
  • Drink plenty of water

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