Workplace Heat Stress, Part 1: Is My Employer Liable?

Extreme Heat Is Becoming More Common in Georgia

Anyone who’s been through a hot Georgia summer has encountered a day where even stepping outside is uncomfortable. Unfortunately for us, those days are likely to continue. Dangerous heat days, where the heat index exceeds 105, already happen around 20 times a year; that number may increase fourfold by 2050. Make sure you stay safe during hot summer days by staying hydrated, keeping physical activity to a minimum, and staying in shady or cool places during the hottest part of the day.

Those who work outside, perform physical labor, or go to a workplace that’s not well-ventilated or air conditioned are especially at risk for suffering a heat-related illness in extreme heat. To keep yourself safe it’s crucial to take frequent, shaded rests, drink plenty of water, and keep your electrolytes up with sports drinks or snacks. If your employer’s negligence causes you to suffer an injury due to extreme heat, you may be eligible to have your medical expenses and any lost wages covered by workers’ comp.

Illnesses Caused by Heat Exposure

Humans are remarkably adaptable, but our tolerance for hot summer temperatures only goes so far. When extreme heat hits, anyone who doesn’t have access to cool water, shade, rest breaks, and other methods of cooling off is at danger for the following heat-related illnesses.

Heat Stroke
You may have heard that heat stroke can only happen if you stop sweating, but that’s only one warning sign. Higher-than-normal levels of sweat may also be associated with heat stroke, which is caused by your body’s failure to cool off. Watch for symptoms including confusion, slurred speech, high body temperature, seizures, or even a loss of consciousness. Should you notice someone with heat stroke, you should call 911 and do your best to cool the patient off until emergency services arrive.

Heat Exhaustion
When your body runs low on water or sodium, your blood volume may drop, resulting in a lack of blood circulation to some parts of your body. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Thirst
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Anger or moodiness
  • Higher-than-normal levels of sweat
  • High body temperature

Anyone who may be suffering from heat exhaustion should not be left alone, and bystanders should call 911. If possible, supply them with liquids to help fight their dehydration.

Heat Syncope
Heat syncope, characterized by dizziness, light-headedness, or fainting, can occur after standing for long periods or very quickly rising to one’s feet in hot conditions. Caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, heat syncope is relatively easy to treat. Anyone affected should find a cool, shady place to rest and rehydrate with water, juice, or an electrolyte-replenishing beverage.

Heat Cramps
When water intake is not complemented by foods or beverages that help replenish the electrolytes you use when sweating, your muscles may struggle to perform. If you develop cramps or muscle spasms, take a break to have a snack or a sports drink and make sure you continue to take breaks every quarter hour. Medical assistance may be necessary if you have heart problems, are on a low-sodium diet, or if cramps last for more than an hour.

Hyponatremia (Low Blood Sodium)
As with heat cramps, hyponatremia is caused when you lose too much sodium through sweating. When plasma sodium levels drop, your cells become overfilled with water and begin to swell. You may experience symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Low energy or sleepiness
  • Muscle cramps or spasms
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures or coma
  • Encephalopathy (brain malfunction)
  • Difficulty breathing due to fluid in the lungs

Minor symptoms may be treatable in the same way as heat cramps, but if you notice any changes in brain function, inability to keep food down, or respiratory issues, you should seek emergency care as soon as possible.

Heat Rash
When your sweat glands are blocked, excess sweat and constant humidity may cause inflammation that results in a rash. Most common in high-sweat and/or low-ventilation areas including the neck and chest, area under the breasts, creases of elbows and knees, and groin, sweat rash looks like a group of small pimples or blisters. After you develop the rash, you may stop sweating in these areas—but that’s not enough to solve the problem. Keep your skin cool and dry and the rash will go away.

Rhabdomyolysis
Excessive physical activity in intense heat can lead to muscle damage or death. When this happens the proteins and electrolytes in the muscle are absorbed into your blood and can cause heart seizures or kidney damage if not treated. You may not notice any symptoms, but if you experience cramping or other pain in your muscles, brownish urine, or trouble performing physical activity that should be easy for you, you should go to a doctor right away and ask if you have rhabdomyolysis.

Your Employer Must Help You Stay Safe in Extreme Heat

Heat-related illness is dangerous and, if untreated, may result in death. Your employer is required to provide a safe working environment, and that includes allowing employees to take periodic breaks to rest, drink water or sports drinks, and eat snacks. If your employer does not make sufficient allowances for reduction of heat stress, you or any coworkers who suffer major heat-related injury may be able to file for workers’ compensation.

Illness isn’t the only thing that can happen when it’s too hot to be on the job. Come back on Friday 9/20 to learn about your employer’s role in heat-related workplace accidents.

Questions about your workers’ comp claim? Contact us online or call (770) 629-9321 for a free consultation.

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