What Is Heat Stress?

‘Heat stress’ is the term for what happens when people become ‘overheated’, often when in a working environment. In heat stress, the body’s internal methods of controlling its temperature fail due to stress, work rate and ambient temperature and this can ultimately result in a number of unwanted and potentially dangerous symptoms.

Here we will look at what effects heat stress can have on the body, as well as what causes it and how to avoid it.

Understanding Heat Stress

To understand heat stress it is useful to first try and understand how the body responds to heat in general.

Normally, when you get very hot, the body will respond by increasing blood flow to the surface of the skin and sweating. Both these processes can help to regulate internal temperature. Heat is also lost through radiation and through both these processes the objective is to return the body to normal temperature.

Unfortunately though, these methods are not always sufficient to bring the body back down to its regular temperature – especially if the sufferer is wearing hot clothing or is very active. This can then cause numerous problems as various systems effectively ‘overheat’.

Heat stress is a particular concern in a number of specific industries. In particular, heat stress can often occur in kitchens for kitchen porters and waiting staff, in boiler rooms, in mines, in launderettes and in nuclear power plants. It’s also a risk in a number of manufacturing plants and is an important factor that managers and business owners need to factor in.

A good analogy could be your laptop. The more you use it for demanding processes, the hotter it will generally get. Eventually the fan will come on which is similar to your body’s internal cooling systems. Normally this will be sufficient to cool the laptop down and to avoid damage. But if you keep using the computer to perform highly demanding tasks (such as playing high-end games) or if you stand it on the bed where the fan vents might get blocked, then you will find it continues to get hotter and hotter eventually resulting in a drop in performance and potentially permanent damage.

Symptoms of Heat Stress

In humans (as opposed to laptops) the symptoms of heat stress can vary but will generally include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle cramping
  • Heat rash
  • Fainting
  • Thirst
  • Exhaustion (fatigue, dizziness, nausea)
  • Heat stroke (which may result in loss of consciousness)

It’s also worth noting that heat can cause cognitive stress as well. When in a hot and/or crowded environment, the likelihood of becoming stressed or angry increases greatly. This can then cause people to struggle to perform and even to have angry/violent outbursts. This is an important concern in particular for event management.

How to Avoid Heat Stress

There are numerous steps you can take to try to avoid heat stress. Among these are:

  • Taking regular breaks from intensive work and/or stepping out of very hot environments
  • Staying well hydrated with cold water in particular
  • Making note of the indicators that suggest imminent heat stress
  • Wearing thin layers that can be removed as necessary
  • Getting plenty of exercise and eating healthily to maintain good circulation
  • Avoiding strong antiperspirants which might otherwise block sweat
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