Reducing heat stress for you and your employees

Heat stress can be an issue for you and your employees, even in a northern state like Michigan. Multiple 90+ degree days during spring 2022 brought that to light for many of us working in agriculture.

Recently I was able to attend an outstanding program on Heat Stress, presented and developed by Bethany Boggess Alcauter of the National Center for Farmworker Health, and hosted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers. The program shared information about what heat stress is, how to prevent and treat it, and shared some excellent resources for employers and employees.

What is Heat Stress?

Heat stress can be defined as when your body has excess heat that it can’t get rid of. This excess heat raises our body temperature beyond the normal range of 97-99 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are various levels of heat stress ranging from heat rash and heat cramps to heat stroke (less severe to more severe respectively). The resulting illness can range from discomfort to death. 

When we experience heat stress, it is important to treat it early on so that we don’t move to more severe heat stress levels. Treatments for heat rash include resting in the shade, changing wet clothes to keep your skin dry, and drinking water. Treatments from heat cramps include resting in the shade, changing wet clothes, and drinking a water/electrolyte solution.

If heat stress has progressed to more serious level, you and your employees may experience symptoms such as dizziness, light-headedness, fainting, headache, nausea/vomiting, irritability, decreased urination, and increased thirst. If you or your employees have a combination of these symptoms or have fainted, you/they are likely to need medical attention. Move the individual safely to a shaded area, remove unnecessary clothing (jackets, socks, and shoes), encourage small sips of water, and do not leave the individual alone.

At the most serious level of heat stress, individuals may experience confusion/altered behavior, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and high body temperature. If you or your employees are experiencing these symptoms, 911 should be called immediately. While waiting for paramedics; move the individual to a shaded cool area, work to cool the individual down with water, ice packs, cold water rags, etc. Do not leave the individual alone.

Why might you and your workers not report heat stress symptoms?

There is often a stigma in reporting symptoms of heat stress. If workers are not believed, made fun of, or left alone, their symptoms may become more severe, and they may be more likely to avoid reporting heat stress in the future. Employers may also avoid acknowledging their own heat stress, because we often feel like we should just be able to “tough it out”. It’s important to realize the just because you and your workers were able to do X task last season, for Y number of hours without a break, that you can do that again this year without any issues. Many risk factors affect the likelihood of heat stress including, personal situations, the work being performed (and how it is performed), and the weather. Maybe you or a worker are on a new medication, or sick, or didn’t get enough sleep last night. These personal situations (and many others) can affect the likeliness of experiencing heat stress. Not to mention, that we are a year older than last year!

The work may have changed from last year as well. Maybe you’re doing more with less people, maybe there are new PPE requirements from regulators or from a new product that you are using. Finally, weather’s impact on heat stress more than just temperature. Heat stress from weather is also impacted by direct sunlight, wind speed and humidity.

You as the employer can help reduce the stigma of reporting heat stress by:

  • Requiring all workers to take periodic breaks and drink fluids
  • Have a zero tolerance for people making fun of others for reporting heat stress symptoms
  • Inform workers that they will not face retaliation or lost wages for seeking medical care

How can we prevent heat stress?

  • Have easy access to water and electrolytes
  • Have shade that is easily accessible
  • Start a buddy system where workers look out for each other, listen to each other, recognize changes in behavior and advocate for a break when their buddy needs one
  • Educate employees and supervisors on how to recognize heat stress symptoms and how to respond

Resources for farmers and employees

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