Who is most at risk when it comes to heat-related illnesses?
As a smart safety solution designed to prevent incidents related to heat stress in the workplace, we often discuss the catastrophic consequences and implications of heat-related illnesses on employees and organisations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, heat causes over 170,000 work-related injuries and more than 2000 fatalities every year. With scientists predicting that extreme climatic temperatures are likely to increase in frequency and severity, it’s important to ensure organisations are prepared; however, do you know what additional signs to look out for? Here we explore the factors that increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.
Pre-existing medical conditions
Thermoregulation is how the body maintains its internal core temperature. This is essential for keeping it healthy and functioning correctly. As we get older our ability to control core body temperature becomes compromised as we are exposed to increasing temperatures. The decrease in the body’s thermoregulatory ability is a result of a combination of factors, including changes in sweating, blood flow to the skin and cardiovascular function. The problem can be exacerbated by a decrease in overall fitness and increase in body fat that can occur with age. Experts have suggested that the combination of age-related changes in thermoregulatory and cardiovascular function can impair the body’s ability to maintain core body temperature (CBT) at safe levels, especially during extended exposure to heat or working in hot conditions.
While the body’s ability to thermoregulate decreases with age it’s important to acknowledge that young workers can also be a high risk category. Studies in the agriculture sector in Italy discovered that workers within the 15 – 34 years age group suffered during heatwaves and faced occupational injuries as they were less likely to be trained and experienced to be aware of the risks posed from increased heat exposure.
Heatstroke that has led to fatalities occurs 3.5 times more frequently in adults who are overweight and obese than in individuals who have an average body mass index. Increased body mass means that the body has to work harder for the same level of activity, which increases metabolic activity and generates more heat. Body fat acts as insulation which can benefit individuals in colder climates but in a hot environment it makes it harder for the body to dissipate heat. People with excess body fat also typically have a decrease in relative skin surface area compared to individuals with a lower body mass. A greater surface area provides more exposed skin to allow heat transfer away from the body. .
Pre-existing medical conditions
Medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and lower respiratory tract infections can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. These conditions along with many other physical and mental health conditions can make individuals more vulnerable to changes in temperature through a direct affect on the body’s physiology and ability to thermoregulate. Studies have shown exposure to increased temperatures exacerbates and increases mortality rates in 90% of existing causes of death, including ischemic heart disease, stroke, COPD, lower respiratory infections, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, lung cancers, diabetes mellitus, road injury and diarrheal disease. Heat-related illnesses are often underreported, especially in the workplace; however, studies have highlighted an increase in the risk of hospitalisation, and in severe cases death, when people who have pre-existing conditions are exposed to excessive heat.
Also, prior heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke can have complications that can last several months. Once a worker has suffered from heatstroke, they are more susceptible to getting this heat-related illness again, meaning they are permanently affected and likely to have a reduced heat tolerance thereafter. It’s important to be aware of this and ensure the right plans and measures are taken when exposed to the hot conditions.
Individuals taking medication can increase their risk of heat-related illnesses. Some medications can interfere with the body’s ability to tolerate extreme temperatures as they can impact parts of the brain responsible for normal thermoregulatory functions. Whether prescribed or over-the-counter, it’s important that employees who are likely to be exposed to extreme heat over extended periods of time check with their doctors about the effects of their medication in case their risks are heightened. Medications that could increase the risks of heat-related illness include antidepressants, antihistamines and diuretics.
Lack of acclimatisation
Heat tends to cause more deaths at the start of summer than at the end and more deaths occur when heat strikes areas unaccustomed to it. The workplace is no different. Industry figures show 50-70% of workplace fatalities occur in the first few days of exposure to hot environments as the body needs time to build a tolerance to a new environment, gradually. Workers who have spent a great deal of time in higher temperatures are likely to be more acclimated. This means the body has already physically adjusted to the temperature of the environment and can effectively thermoregulate. A lack of acclimatisation can often put new employees at the greatest risk of heat-related illnesses. It’s important that organisations are aware of this and considerations are taken when onboarding new recruits. Acclimatisation usually occurs after a two week period for healthy individuals; however, it’s important to note the process tends to be faster in response to heat and slower in the cold.
When we understand the factors that can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, it can better help prevent incidents in the workplace. Age, weight, pre-existing medical conditions, medication consumption and our ability to acclimate can significantly impact the body’s ability to cope in such environments. Employers should provide training to workers so they understand what heat-stress is and how it can impact their health and capacity to work. In addition to providing training, organisations can implement wearable technology like the Bodytrak solution to help mitigate the risks around heat exposure. Monitoring an individual’s physiological responses to workplace stressors in real-time can ensure health and safety professionals have access to personalised data and make effective decisions to mitigate the risk of heat-related illnesses. For a complimentary demo, please contact the team today.