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Mitigating Hot Environments

More often than not, working in hot environments is a matter of necessity, rather than choice. When a choice is possible, it is always better to postpone the work until the environment is cooler. When choice is not possible, or practical, then controls are needed to mitigate or lessen, the probability of heat illnesses.

Environmental Controls

Ventilation, air cooling, fans, shielding, and insulation are the five major types of engineering controls used to reduce heat stress in hot work environments. Heat reduction can also be achieved by using power assists and tools that reduce the physical demands placed on a worker.

However, for this approach to be successful, the metabolic effort required for the worker to use or operate these devices must be less than the effort required without them. Another method is to reduce the effort necessary to operate power assists. The worker should be allowed to take frequent rest breaks in a cooler environment.

Acclimatization. The human body can adapt to heat exposure to some extent. This physiological adaptation is called acclimatization. After a period of acclimatization, the same activity will produce fewer cardiovascular demands. The worker will sweat more efficiently (causing better evaporative cooling), and thus will more easily be able to maintain normal body temperatures.

A properly designed and applied acclimatization program decreases the risk of heat-related illnesses. Such a program basically involves exposing employees to work in a hot environment for progressively longer periods. NIOSH (1986) says that, for workers who have had previous experience in jobs where heat levels are high enough to produce heat stress, the regimen should be 50% exposure on day one, 60% on day two, 80% on day three, and 100% on day four. For new workers who will be similarly exposed, the regimen should be 20% on day one, with a 20% increase in exposure each additional day.

Fluid Replacement. Cool (50°-60°F) water or any cool liquid (except alcoholic beverages) should be made available to workers to encourage them to drink small amounts frequently, e.g., one cup every 20 minutes. Ample supplies of liquids should be placed close to the work area. Although some commercial replacement drinks contain salt, this is not necessary for acclimatized individuals because most people add enough salt to their summer diets.

It should be noted that electrolyte type drinks, such as Gatorade, should be used sparingly. They should be incorporated- especially in hot environments where the worker generates a great deal of sweat, but should never be used exclusively. These type of drinks actually pull water from the system as the body digests the non-liquid ingredients (minerals, salts, flavorings and sweeteners, etc.).  Likewise, drinking only water can lead to a heat illness as the body loses needed electrolytes through the sweating process.

A recommended ratio might be one portion of electrolyte containing drinks for every three or four portions of water.

Engineering Controls

General ventilation is used to dilute hot air with cooler air (generally cooler air that is brought in from the outside). This technique clearly works better in cooler climates than in hot ones. A permanently installed ventilation system usually handles large areas or entire buildings. Portable or local exhaust systems may be more effective or practical in smaller areas.

Air treatment/air cooling differs from ventilation because it reduces the temperature of the air by removing heat (and sometimes humidity) from the air.

Air conditioning is a method of air cooling, but it is expensive to install and operate. An alternative to air conditioning is the use of chillers to circulate cool water through heat exchangers over which air from the ventilation system is then passed; chillers are more efficient in cooler climates or in dry climates where evaporative cooling can be used.

Local air cooling can be effective in reducing air temperature in specific areas. Two methods have been used successfully in industrial settings. One type, cool rooms, can be used to enclose a specific workplace or to offer a recovery area near hot jobs. The second type is a portable blower with built-in air chiller. The main advantage of a blower, aside from portability, is minimal set-up time.

Another way to reduce heat stress is to increase the air flow or convection using fans, etc. in the work area (as long as the air temperature is less than the worker’s skin temperature). Changes in air speed can help workers stay cooler by increasing both the convective heat exchange (the exchange between the skin surface and the surrounding air) and the rate of evaporation. Because this method does not actually cool the air, any increases in air speed must impact the worker directly to be effective.

If the dry bulb temperature is higher than 35°C (95°F), the hot air passing over the skin can actually make the worker hotter. When the temperature is more than 35°C and the air is dry, evaporative cooling may be improved by air movement, although this improvement will be offset by the convective heat. When the temperature exceeds 35°C and the relative humidity is 100%, air movement will make the worker hotter. Increases in air speed have no effect on the body temperature of workers wearing vapor-barrier clothing.

Heat conduction methods include insulating the hot surface that generates the heat and changing the surface itself.

Simple engineering controls, such as shields, can be used to reduce radiant heat, i.e. heat coming from hot surfaces within the worker’s line of sight. Surfaces that exceed 35°C (95°F) are sources of infrared radiation that can add to the worker’s heat load. Flat black surfaces absorb heat more than smooth, polished ones. Having cooler surfaces surrounding the worker assists in cooling because the worker’s body radiates heat toward them.

With some sources of radiation, such as heating pipes, it is possible to use both insulation and surface modifications to achieve a substantial reduction in radiant heat. Instead of reducing radiation from the source, shielding can be used to interrupt the path between the source and the worker. Polished surfaces make the best barriers, although special glass or metal mesh surfaces can be used if visibility is a problem.

Shields should be located so that they do not interfere with air flow, unless they are also being used to reduce convective heating. The reflective surface of the shield should be kept clean to maintain its effectiveness.

Administrative Controls and Work Practices

Training is the key to good work practices. Unless all employees understand the reasons for using new, or changing old, work practices, the chances of such a program succeeding are greatly reduced.

NIOSH (1986) states that a good heat stress training program should include at least the following components:

  • Knowledge of the hazards of heat stress;
  • Recognition of predisposing factors, danger signs, and symptoms;
  • Awareness of first-aid procedures for, and the potential health effects of, heat stroke;
  • Employee responsibilities in avoiding heat stress;
  • Dangers of using drugs, including therapeutic ones, and alcohol in hot work environments;
  • Use of protective clothing and equipment; and
  • Purpose and coverage of environmental and medical surveillance programs and the advantages of worker participation in such programs.

Hot jobs should be scheduled for the cooler part of the day, and routine maintenance and repair work in hot areas should be scheduled for the cooler seasons of the year.

Worker Monitoring Programs

Every worker who works in extraordinary conditions that increase the risk of heat stress should be personally monitored. These conditions include wearing semipermeable or impermeable clothing when the temperature exceeds 21°C (69.8°F), working at extreme metabolic loads (greater than 500 kcal/hour), etc.

Personal monitoring can be done by checking the heart rate, recovery heart rate, oral temperature, or extent of body water loss.

To check the heart rate, count the radial pulse for 30 seconds at the beginning of the rest period. If the heart rate exceeds 110 beats per minute, shorten the next work period by one third and maintain the same rest period.

Oral temperature can be checked with a clinical thermometer after work but before the employee drinks water. If the oral temperature taken under the tongue exceeds 37.6°C, shorten the next work cycle by one third.

Body water loss can be measured by weighing the worker on a scale at the beginning and end of each work day. The worker’s weight loss should not exceed 1.5% of total body weight in a work day. If a weight loss exceeding this amount is observed, fluid intake should increase.

Other Administrative Controls

The following additional administrative controls can be used to reduce heat stress:

  • Reduce the physical demands of work, e.g., excessive lifting or digging with heavy objects;
  • Provide recovery areas, e.g., air-conditioned enclosures and rooms;
  • Use shifts, e.g., early morning, cool part of the day, or night work;
  • Use intermittent rest periods with water breaks;
  • Use relief workers;
  • Use worker pacing; and
  • Assign extra workers and limit worker occupancy, or the number of workers present, especially in confined or enclosed spaces.
Categories: Health, Safety, Training
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  1. June 12, 2013 at 4:23 PM

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