Nfld. & Labrador

How to stay safe when working in the heat, and when to stop

Employees and employers are both responsible for staying safe during outdoor work in high temperatures.

Extended periods of time outside bring the risk of heat-related illnesses, says Workplace NL

Heat alerts continue throughout Newfoundland after a string of days with higher-than-average temperatures. (Ryan Soulliere/CBC)

When the temperatures are as high as they've been in Newfoundland this month, it's better to avoid outside work — but sometimes that's not an option.

The risks became apparent in Corner Brook yesterday, when a man collapsed while working on a roof collapsed. He began to recover after receiving medical attention, but excess heat can be fatal. A heat wave in Montreal last month is believed to be responsible for 53 deaths in the city.

If you have to work outside, it's important for both employers and employees to take precautions while working in the heat, and to be aware of the signs that it's time for a break in the shade, said Cathy Barrett-Brinson, Workplace NL's senior health and safety advisor.

"In Newfoundland we're not used to these temperatures so people are not acclimatized to, especially, working in the extreme temperatures," Barrett-Brinson told The Corner Brook Morning Show on Wednesday.

What is heat stress?

One of the risks of working outside in high temperatures for extended periods of time is heat stress, or exhaustion. 

"What happens is the rate of heat gain in your body is higher than the rate of heat loss," Barrett-Brinson said.

"When there's a rise in the body temperature, that can result in heat illnesses."

Along with heat stress or exhaustion, heat-related illnesses include heat fainting, heat edema (swelling of hands, feet and ankles), heat rash and heat cramps. The risk for these illnesses varies by person, but Health Canada says hot temperatures are especially dangerous for people with breathing difficulties, heart problems, hypertension, kidney problems, a mental illness like depression or dementia or Parkinson's disease.

There are symptoms to watch for, including nausea, irritability, muscle cramping, exhaustion, dizziness, headache, excess thirst and excessive sweating, Barrett-Brinson said.

"If you are experiencing those types of symptoms, then you know that your body temperature is probably higher than it should be for working outside."

Employer and employee responsibilities

Both employers and employees have responsibilities in avoid heat-related illnesses, Barrett-Brinson said.

"Employers are responsible to make sure that first of all, their that employees are aware are aware of what the signs and symptoms [of heat illness] are and that they know what to do in the case of experiencing some of those symptoms," she said. 

Make adequate drinking water available and remind employees to drink frequently, she said, and let employees know where to go if they need first aid. You can tell if you are drinking enough water by looking at your urine, which will be clear or pale yellow when you are well hydrated or a darker yellow when you are not, according to HealthLink BC.

"Depending on the temperatures and the humidex they may need to look at more frequent breaks."

Employees should ensure that they take advantage of those breaks, and stay on top of any potential symptoms they experience — "just being really aware of their own body, how they feel, and also complying with what their employer has in place," she said.

What if it's not safe to work?

Even when time outside is part of the job, employees always have the right to refuse unsafe work, Barrett-Brinson said.

If it is just not safe for you to work outside, the first step in that refusal is making someone aware of it, she said.

"You really need to take that to your immediate supervisor, and talk to your supervisor about the fact that you really feel you need to refuse work due to unsafe conditions."

Further information on the right to refuse unsafe work, and the process for doing so, is available from Workplace NL or the Occupational Health and Safety division of Service NL.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the Corner Brook Morning Show