By Dee Jepsen, PhD; Pat Brinkman, MA; and Jill Kilanowski, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
When working outdoors the sun and heat can be our enemies. The heat during these hot summer months adds additional stress to our body’s coolant system, which can cause heat stroke, heat stress or heat exhaustion. Working in extreme heat lowers the body’s reaction time and increases risk to other illnesses or injuries.
Death from excessive heat can be explicit — meaning it is the underlying factor that caused the person to die. Besides the sun and heat, wearing additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can burden our body’s regulatory capacity and place workers at increased risk for heat illnesses. Persons with cardiovascular or respiratory illnesses can also be vulnerable to heat; making heart attacks, strokes and other circulatory system attacks more common during the summer months.
Steps to take reduce heat exposure:
- Drink fluids before thirsty. During strenuous work, persons should have 1 cup (8 ounces) of water every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Schedule more frequent rest breaks in hot weather. Breaks allow the body to reduce the core temperature. Using cold packs or wet towels can help reduce the body’s temperature, as well as sitting in the shade or air-conditioning.
- Acclimate to the outdoor work environment by gradually working outside for short periods of time.
- Wear the right clothes for the job by choosing loose fitting and breathable clothing. Wear wide brimmed hats and light colors (read more about clothing in this article).
- Try wearable personal cooling systems to keep core body temperature low.
Had a sunburn? When working outdoors it is important to practice sun safety. Besides skin damage, repeated exposure to the sun can cause certain cancers. Long-term exposure and repeated damage can lead to melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. Damage typically occurs through progressive exposure over several years.
Limiting UV exposure, dressing appropriately and applying sunscreen can reduce the chances of skin damage and disease. Take greater precautions against sun exposure if you:
- Have a history of skin cancer.
- Have a lot of freckles or moles.
- Burn easily or have a fair complexion.
- Have blonde or red hair.
- Have blue, green or gray eyes.
A common misconception is that people with darker complexions are not at risk for skin cancer, because they do not easily sunburn. While it is true that people with darker complexions are more naturally protected from damage (melanin blocks UV rays) than those with lighter complexions, everyone can experience skin damage from prolonged exposure. Prolonged exposure and repeated damage can lead to certain forms of skin cancer and, if left unchecked, can be deadly.
Minimize skin damage risk
To minimize the risk of skin damage or cancer, follow these basic recommendations:
- Schedule outdoor work in the early morning or late afternoon. Stay shaded and avoid sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., when the sun is hottest.
- Add a shade canopy to the driver’s seat of a mower, tractor or other unprotected vehicle.
- Work under a collapsible tent if working in one location for an extended period of time.
- Perform equipment repairs and maintenance in an indoor workshop rather than outside, whenever possible.
- Use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more while working outside. Reapply every two hours or more, if needed. Sunscreen products come in a variety of forms, choose one you will use. Sprays are convenient but try to avoid breathing in the spray. Sticks and ointments work best for the face. Use a lip balm with 15-SPF or higher to protect your lips from sunburn.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat with a 3 to 4-inch brim or a cap with a neck flap. Baseball caps do not protect the ears, temples or neck.
- Wear sunglasses with good UV protection that wrap around the head to block as many rays as possible.
- Wear outdoor-designed protective clothing such as long sleeves, long pants, socks and gloves. Dark colors provide more sun protection but can be hot to wear. Choose medium colors as white provides very little sun protection. Some clothing fabrics with a label of UPF provide additional sun protection. These lightweight fabrics are comfortable, provide sun protection and come in a variety of colors.
Seeking input from Ohio farmers about their sun safety practices.
We are seeking input from Ohio farmers to share their sun safety practices. We are interested to learn how long farmers work in the sun and during which months, the type of prevention practices (if any) that are used, and 7 other health-related factors. A $10 incentive is available for 15 minutes of your time. Male and female farm workers (over the age of 18) are encouraged to complete the survey. Only Ohio residents, who perform agricultural work (no matter the size of the farm or the commodity farmed), are eligible to participate. Hold your smartphone over the QR code to go directly to the survey, or follow this link: www.go.osu.edu/HealthSurvey2020. The information will develop future Extension programs and resources for healthy living.
As the summer heat continues on, outdoor workers should take extra precaution for heat-related stress. Workers of all ages and experience levels can succumb to these extremely high temperatures. The main goal for any outdoor summer job is to take steps to prevent over-heating and sunburns that cause blisters and peeling of the skin.
Dee Jepsen is an Associate Professor for Agricultural Safety and Health and can be reached at Jepsen.firstname.lastname@example.org. Pat Brinkman is an Associate Professor in Family and Consumer Sciences and can be reached at email@example.com. Jill Kilanowski, is a Research Associate for Agricultural Safety and Health and available at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.