Stopping heat exhaustion in its tracks

Heat stress is Australia’s number one natural killer. It has caused the death of more Australians than floods, cyclones, bushfires and storms combined, according to risk scientists from Macquarie University. While this statistic primarily refers to heat events, it illustrates the point that excessive heat has a dangerous effect on the human body. With many people spending approximately 25 per cent of their time at work, this means that employers have a responsibility to prevent their employees from suffering heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion is part of a spectrum of heat-related illnesses beginning with heat cramps, progressing to heat exhaustion and then finally to heat stroke. It is important to know that in order for the body to cool itself it needs to produce sweat, and that sweat needs to evaporate. This requires enough fluid in the body to produce the sweat, as well as air circulating across the skin to allow the sweat to evaporate. If this does not occur, workers could start to experience profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, vomiting, headaches and muscle cramps.

Workers in industries such as mining, manufacturing and construction are vulnerable to this type of illness because they tend to be exposed to excessive amounts of heat. This could be through working outside, performing strenuous physical tasks, or working in a poorly ventilated building.

Not only does this put workers’ health at risk, but it also affects their productivity. Heat stress can result in poor motor control function, decreased mental performance and an increased accident rate. Specifically, heat stress has been found to affect dexterity and coordination, the ability to remain alert during long and monotonous tasks, and the ability to make quick decisions – all attributes that are required when working in the above-mentioned industries.

It can be difficult for employers to control workers’ exposure to heat, especially if their job necessitates that they spend the majority of their time working outside. What employers can control however, is what their workers are equipped with.

As mentioned, evaporation plays an important part in the thermoregulation of the body. The cooling effect of sweat relies on adequate air circulation close to the surface of the skin. If workers wear clothing that impedes air flow and limits the effective evaporation of sweat, the body’s thermal load is greatly increased, even if the environment is within the acceptable limits set by heat stress indices. Therefore, it is important for workers to wear loose-fitting clothing that allows a ready movement of air.

KLEENGUARD* A20 Coveralls from Kimberly-Clark Professional represent an ideal solution for protecting workers from heat exhaustion. Made with light, breathable SMS fabric, they are able to maximise sweat evaporation while at the same time providing barrier protection against dry particulates. They also retain comfort and freedom of movement with their elasticated hood, waist, cuffs and ankles, and full-length zip.

The benefits of A20 Coveralls can be clearly seen in real work situations. In the Kimberly-Clark Professional Efficient Workplace Program for example, the company supplied a US metal manufacturer with the coveralls to help improve worker comfort, increase productivity and reduce costs. Prior to using the A20 Coveralls, workers reported being hot and uncomfortable, and were ripping off sleeves and cutting holes in the back of their coveralls, and discarding up to five coveralls per day. Solvents were also penetrating the coveralls, requiring some workers to wear an additional apron. All of this caused a decrease in productivity.

In their trial of the A20 Coveralls, the manufacturer was able to eliminate the need for additional aprons and increase productivity of workers who were no longer wasting time throwing away or modifying their coveralls. What’s more, the manufacturer was able to reduce costs by 48 per cent and reduce waste by over 3,600kg. This is just one example of how the right coveralls are acting to stop heat exhaustion in its tracks, simultaneously maximising the productivity of workers performing heat-intensive tasks.

For more information, download this whitepaper here.