While productivity is a good goal in any job, it's possible to take it too far. Especially in hot weather, employers and members should be aware of the dangers of overexertion.
As a union leader, you can educate your members about the signs and symptoms of dehydration and heatstroke and the steps to successfully address and prevent them.
Causes of Workplace Dehydration
Although wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is essential for shielding workers from workplace dangers, the risk of dehydration can be significantly higher for members who wear it.
Some types of PPE are made from materials that don't allow airflow, while others simply reduce breathability. In both cases, workers may sweat more, leading to water loss. Those outfitted in full PPE may also be reluctant to remove the equipment to drink and eat since it can be time-consuming to put back on. Others may be afraid of wasting a limited supply of PPE.
Additionally, those who operate outdoors — especially those in elevated temperatures — are at higher risk as the season gets hotter, since hot and humid weather can increase one's risk of dehydration. Risk is even higher when the work involves a physically demanding activity.
Equipment and exertion aren't the only factors that contribute to dehydration, however. Groups at heightened risk include the elderly, people who take certain medications, such as those that narrow the blood vessels, and workers with chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease.
Spotting Dehydration and Heatstroke
Heatstroke happens when a person's body overheats. Most commonly a side effect of overexertion in high temperatures, it's the most serious form of heat injury. Common symptoms of heatstroke include:
- A body temperature of greater than 104° Fahrenheit
- Confusion or slurred speech
- Nausea or vomiting
- Flushed skin
- High heart rate
- Muscle cramps
- Intense thirst
How to Address Heatstroke
A member with heatstroke needs emergency treatment right away. If the member or others around them don't recognize the signs and leave the condition untreated, heatstroke can damage essential organs such as the brain and heart.
If you think someone may be suffering heatstroke, call 911 immediately. Then, bring them indoors or into the shade to cool them down. Remove any extra clothing and try to bring their body temperature down however you can, such as a shower, cool water from a hose or ice packs placed on the person's head, armpits and neck.
It's best, however, to prevent heatstroke or dehydration in the first place. Encourage members to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after work. Communicate too that water is a better alternative to energy or sports drinks, which can contain high levels of caffeine, sugar and sodium. Members may opt to wear a hydration backpack for quick, convenient access to fluids. Eating healthy food can also help — especially fruits and vegetables, which contain a good amount of water.
Employers should also schedule frequent breaks during the hottest part of the day to help decrease the risk of dehydration. Finally, workers should wear loose-fitting clothing, which allows the body to better cool itself in hot and humid temperatures.
Educating Your Members
As a union leader, you're in a good position to share these causes, signs and solutions with your members. Consider using your regular publication to circulate this information every so often, especially in the summer.
While everyone should take safety precautions on the job, members still need a thorough knowledge of their health insurance and any options for time off, such as short- or long-term disability, in case it's needed. It's critical that members are aware of their health risks and fully understand their benefits before an emergency arises. Take the time to remind members of their benefits should they be injured on the job — it's an easy way to prioritize member safety and health.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.