How to Prevent Heat Illness in Roofing Workers

Here in the northeastern U.S., the leaves are turning green, birds are singing and the weather is pleasant. Soon, summer will arrive and this nice weather will turn into excruciatingly high heat and humidity. High heat along with high humidity are some of the major causes of fatalities for workers during the hot summer months. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration, between 2008-12, nine roofers died from heat-related illnesses and accidents in the US. Heat illnesses range from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat rash, also known as prickly heat, occurs in hot humid environments. It is caused by sweat not being allowed to evaporate from the skin. It usually occurs in areas of the body where the skin contacts clothing or other skin. Sweat ducts become plugged, resulting in skin rash. Heat rash is more of an annoyance than an illness. The signs and symptoms are usually a painful red rash aggravated by heat, humidity and skin contact. Heat rash, which is often accompanied by infection, is mostly prevented by cleanliness and personal hygiene. The best treatment is to leave hot, humid work environments; allow skin to dry; and bathe regularly. Sometimes baby powder or topical ointments can help.

Heat cramps usually affect workers who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. This sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels. Water loss affects the capability of the body to sweat and, therefore, regulate body temperature. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Sometimes these cramps occur after work hours when the employee is resting because the worker did not replenish fluids after finishing the day’s work. Heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Atlanta, symptoms of heat cramps are a severe rapid muscle tightening accompanied by pain and spasms usually in the abdomen, arms or legs. Workers with heat cramps should stop all activity and sit in a cool, shady place; drink clear juice or a sports beverage; seek medical attention if the worker has heart problems, is on a low-sodium diet or the cramps do not subside within one hour. Do not return the effected employee to strenuous work for a few hours after the cramps subside because further exertion may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat syncope is fainting. Syncope usually occurs after prolonged standing or sudden rising from a sitting or lying position. Factors that may contribute to heat syncope include dehydration and lack of acclimatization. Symptoms associated with heat syncope include light-headedness and dizziness. Workers with heat syncope should sit or lie down in a cool place when they begin to feel symptoms. They should slowly drink water; clear fruit juice, like pineapple juice; or a sports beverage.

Heat exhaustion is the most common serious heat-related illness and is often referred to as heat prostration or heat collapse. If large amounts of fluid are sweated out and/or you’ve been sick, you will be predisposed to this level of heat illness. Signs and symptoms include continued sweating; cool, clammy, pale, and/or gray skin; temperature normal or slightly elevated; weak rapid pulse; dizziness, weakness and fatigue; and uncoordinated actions. Heat exhaustion, which is accompanied by nausea and headache, often leads to unconsciousness. Immediately remove a worker displaying signs of heat exhaustion from the hot environment and have him or her drink plenty of fluids and rest in a cool place. Untreated heat exhaustion cases may lead to heat stroke.

Heat stroke is the least common but most severe heat illness. If left un- treated, heat stroke can lead to death. The signs and symptoms of heat stroke include an elevated body temperature of 105 F or more. The skin of the victim will usually be hot, dry, flushed and red. There is the possibility that the victim will suffer convulsions. The victim will no longer be sweating adequately and may be confused or become unconscious Immediately call for medical assistance. Victims of heat stroke must be immediately removed from the hot environment. Cool him or her down with tepid compresses on the forehead, neck, groin and underarms—areas where blood flow is close to the surface. The cooler blood immediately spreads to the core. DO NOT USE ice water because the sudden change in temperature may result in shock. Begin fanning the victim with whatever is available: clothes, cardboard, etc. Heat-stroke victims will need medical attention; the aforementioned first-aid measures are life-saving tactics to be taken before the worker is transported to a medical facility.

OSHA also says the best way to stay cool when working in hot environments is to be acclimatized to the heat. Workers who start working in April when the temperatures are cooler and slowly acclimatize fare better when the thermometer climbs into the higher numbers. In addition, wearing a light-colored, wide-brimmed hat will keep the sun off workers’ faces and heads. Also, light-colored, loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts slow the effects of the hot sun on the body. The days of working shirtless in the hot sun are over. Not only can sun exposure cause skin cancer and dehydrate a person, it also ages the skin rapidly. Cotton is an ideal fabric to wear to slowly wick away sweat, allowing the body to cool naturally. There are also many new synthetic cooling materials on the market to help keep workers cool
in the hot weather.

Staying well hydrated is mandatory in hot weather. Workers may not be thirsty, but they must continue to drink water, juices or sports drinks every 15 minutes. They should not drink alcohol or caffeinated products. Coffee, tea and alcohol can help dehydrate a worker in the heat. A rule of thumb is to have workers check their urine. If they are not urinating, they need to drink more, and if their urine is dark it is a sign there is not enough water in their system.

Remember working in the heat of summer can be very dangerous. We must protect ourselves, our employees and our coworkers from heat-related illnesses. Watch out for each other out there; remember, “We are our brothers’ keepers.”

Learn More

For more information about heat-related illnesses, visit the following websites:
CDC.gov/niosh/topics/heatstress/
OSHA.gov/SLTC/heatillness/edresources.html