July 2004 Edition
Healthwise: Hot on the Job

by Susan Wesenhagen

Canadians anxiously await the sun and the warmer temperatures associated with the summer season. Although we enjoy the heat, the potential for developing heat related illnesses, including heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion or the most deadly heat illness - heat stroke - is a very real danger.

Heat stroke, the most severe form of heat related illnesses, can be a life threatening medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature, the sweating mechanism which helps to cool the body fails, the body's temperature rises very rapidly and the body is unable to cool down. Symptoms of heat stroke may include red, flushed skin; headaches; a rapid pulse; a lack of sweating; and in extreme cases, seizures or lack of consciousness.

Though many people associate heat stroke with physical exertion it is not necessarily caused by exercising or exertion - high temperatures, lack of body fluids and overexposure to sun can all cause heat stroke.

The elderly and the very young are more susceptible to developing heat stroke, though it can strike people of any age, so employees working in busy, hot, foodservice kitchens, and on patios are at greater risk.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) there is no single value for the maximum temperature in which people can be expected to work. However, they note there are guidelines in place for occupational exposure limits and guidelines for exposure to high temperatures based on a number of factors including relative humidity, exposure to heat sources, amount of air movement, what clothing must be worn (including protective clothing) and the amount of breaks provided.

"Employers have a duty to take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe for the worker. This includes taking effective measures to protect workers from heat stress disorders," says the CCOHS.

To avoid heat stroke and to reduce discomfort during heat waves follow a few simple guidelines:

Use air conditioning or fans. Not all foodservice kitchens or dining areas are equipped with central air conditioning, however using fans can help you improve air circulation.

Wear light, loose fitting clothes. For servers on the patio a summer change of wardrobe might include a switch from pants to shorts or a skirt, and cooler light coloured fabrics will also help them to beat the heat.

Take more frequent rest breaks. Ensure staff are given time to rest in a cooler area, away from a hot stove.

Be flexible. Save the more physically demanding work for after the sun goes down and temperatures have cooled.

Use screens or umbrellas to create shade. If your outside seating area is where employees take breaks, or where customers sit and eat, be sure to provide shade.

Stay hydrated. The number one way of avoiding heat stress is to stay hydrated. Encourage employees to drink water often. By the time you feel thirsty, you have probably already become dehydrated, and when people are busy they forget to drink. Providing regular breaks for employees to drink water is essential. ¨

Running a special event or outdoor BBQ? Ensure guests do not suffer from heat related illnesses at the big event. Expect sales of bottled water to be brisk, and ensure adequate staffing of kiosks serving drinks. Add additional coolers in a variety of locations to promote the sale of bottled water or sport beverages.

Heat Illness

Heat Rash: Is a skin irritation that occurs in hot humid conditions. Areas of the skin itch and feel prickly. Usually occurs on parts of the body that are clothed. Goes away on its own after a few days.

Heat Cramps: Are caused by muscle contractions, most often in the upper leg area. They are associated with a lack of fluids, high temperatures and a lack of physical conditioning. Though painful, they are not life threatening.

Heat Exhaustion: Severe exhaustion that is attributed to heat. Symptoms may include paleness, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, vomiting and fainting. It is a serious illness and should be monitored. Treat by providing cool, wet clothes; water or sport drinks to replace electrolytes.

Heat Stroke: Most severe form on heat illness. Requires medical assistance. Symptoms include red flushed skin, a lack of body sweat, seizures, rapid pulse, unconsciousness and a body temperature of 106°F or higher.