2021 Readers’ Choice Awards Winners: Best PPE, safety equipment products
ISHN Magazine recognizes the most innovative personal protection equipment and occupational health and safety products of 2021
Kenzen Chief Commercial Officer Heidi Lehmann shares how the tech company’s new features play a role in workplace safety and how it can help the company transition to an analytics play.
Responding is Michael Prewitt, operations and deployment manager, Kenzen, New York.
As workforces prep for the summer, employers may be looking at previous years’ data on worker heat stress and trying to identify patterns. There may be some patterns related to climate, but it’s more likely that the data per individual isn’t as simple and clear. That’s because lots of contributing factors determine how a worker responds to heat.
Here, we’ll discuss factors that can and can’t be controlled, and then provide insights into how an employer can be best prepared.
Genetics contribute to how much someone sweats and how they adapt to heat. Various diseases can affect heat response as well. Diabetes affects sweat gland function, which can make it harder for some individuals to cool down. Workers with skin disorders, such as psoriasis, or those who have received skin grafts can also have trouble sweating and cooling themselves in heat. Conditions affecting the cardiovascular system, such as high blood pressure, will also limit the body’s ability to thermoregulate in heat.
Additionally, once a person is over the age of 35, their ability to dissipate heat starts to decline.
Substances can affect susceptibility to heat illness as well. Prescription drugs such as antidepressants, sympathomimetics, anticholinergics and antipsychotics have been shown to impair sweat gland function and increase heat production. Over-the-counter allergy medications also impair sweat gland function.
Nicotine use alters sweating and skin blood flow mechanisms, making a worker more susceptible to heat illnesses. As a stimulant, nicotine also increases heart rate and blood pressure. This causes the cardiovascular system to work harder while it’s already stressed from the heat.
Alcohol use can lead to dehydration when working in the heat. If a worker doesn’t properly hydrate before and during work, they’ll be at increased risk for heat illness.
Diuretics have a similar impact as alcohol, causing the cardiovascular system to work even harder in the heat. Drugs that lower heart rate and blood pressure can make workers heat up faster.
These issues cannot be known by all members of an organization because of the federal law restricting release of medical information and other privacy practices, but a strong baseline can still be cultivated that gives each worker the best chance of managing work in the heat.
Staying physically fit makes it easier for a person to manage heat stress. Providing fitness incentives can help encourage your workers to prepare themselves for the hotter season.
Hydration is an obvious mitigation to heat stress. Ensure every worker has easy access to water and is aware of how much they should drink. Try not to chug water, as you can only absorb so much at time, and always drink when you’re thirsty.
The best way to ensure all workers are prepped for working in the heat is to acclimatize them correctly. Best practice is to allow two weeks for acclimatization. Spend an hour in the heat each day and increase the temperature they’re exposed to by almost 2° F each day. This will get your workforce as prepared as possible for the jobs in the heat of summer.
The warming months are bringing heat safety to mind for anyone who works outside or in a challenging hot environment. How bad is it going to get? And what can be done to make it easier on everyone? These are common questions that arise this time of year.
Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to varying environments, but adaptation to heat takes time and varies by individual. Acclimatization to heat can take from two to three weeks when done properly and risks the worker’s health and work site safety if not done properly.
Appropriate heat acclimatization is accomplished by increasing one’s core body temperature 1°C for an hour each day during the work period. If the job requires PPE, as most do, workers need to slowly add PPE each day to balance acclimatization – adding 20% of clothing and equipment each day until the full worksite PPE can be worn. It’s not easy to put a worker that is used to cooler climates into a hot environment and have productivity and well-being stay the same. While it takes time and understanding of proper techniques, simple acclimatization steps make for a better, more productive jobsite in hot conditions.
Beyond acclimatization, dealing with heat during work is a complex problem. That’s because heat adaptability depends on how efficient a person is at cooling him or herself, via sweat, and there are several things that can contribute to that:
Including all of that information in protective strategies can be a logistical challenge. Understanding the physiological functions can help inform what metrics to use for recognizing heat stress.
As a worker’s core body temperature rises, the primary mode of cooling off is through sweating. Blood flow is increased to the skin, water and electrolytes are expelled by the sweat glands, and the evaporation of sweat cools the body down. This process is very efficient, as long as evaporation can occur while activity level does not increase and adequate hydration occurs.
Once a worker starts sweating on the job site in the heat, she needs to be monitored to track her health vitals. Heart rate needs to increase during sweating in order to pump blood fast enough to get it to the skin to cool down. But muscles also require blood to get oxygen and other nutrients for proper function during work in the heat. This means the cardiovascular system has added strain because it must get blood everywhere it is needed.
If a worker is sweating and maintaining a steady workload, eventually that fluid loss from the sweat is going to be felt. Sweat loss will result in lower blood volume and pressure. In order to maintain physical activity for work and continue sweating to keep the body cool, the heart once again needs to beat faster.
Being able to monitor a worker’s heart rate, body temperature, sweat rate and knowing the intensity of their daily labor can provide the best insights to the individual’s health at any given time during warm working conditions for the onsite supervisor or health and safety officer. Allowing managers to give each worker breaks at the right time (when their individual body needs them), with water and shade, can keep everyone safe in the heat.
The cardiovascular system is not the only vital function that’s disrupted during hot work. The nervous system is also impacted, decreasing a worker’s ability to complete tasks as well as affecting cognitive ability. Similar to the cardiovascular system having to work harder in the heat, the nervous system also needs to work harder in order to accomplish the same muscle movement that happened without the added heat. An overtasked nervous system makes work-related tasks harder as well as making cognitive decision-making more difficult. A worker experiencing heat stress is forcing their heart to work harder while his muscles are challenged to continue work and their cognitive functions are dropping, which add up to a significant risk to the individual, the team, the project and the company.
Worker heat stress is a serious and complex problem. Current heat safety strategies, without the use of today’s new smart PPE health monitors, may be well intentioned but not as effective as they could be. Today, advanced monitoring of personal heat stress indicators is possible, helping workers and their supervisors more closely watch individual physiological indicators of heat stress such as heart rate, sweat rate and activity levels, making summertime jobsites safer and more productive.