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What is heat stress and how do I deal with it?

Now that we are entering the summer months, temperatures can reach more than 35 degrees Celsius in some regions. Migrant workers are exposed to high temperatures, working outdoors in agriculture, or indoors in places without air conditioning such as warehouses or packing facilities.

Heat stress includes a series of conditions in which the body experiences overheating, meaning the body cannot get rid of excess heat. When this happens, body temperature and heart rate increase. As the body continues to accumulate heat, a person experiencing heat stress begins to lose concentration, can become irritable or ill, and often loses the desire to drink fluids. The next stage can include fainting and even death. Workers can experience heat stress if they are engaged in hard physical work even if the temperature is not that hot. 

Migrant workers who are at particular risk are those who work in hot environments for long hours without sufficient breaks in shady places, and those who do hard physical work or who have to wear clothing that retains body heat in their workplace. Some personal risk factors include pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, age, pregnancy, lack of physical fitness, weight, previous episodes of heat-related illness, alcohol or drug use, and use of certain medications.

It is important to keep the symptoms of heat stress in mind.

At first, you may experience symptoms such as: 

  • Feeling of discomfort

  • Increased heart rate

  • Headache

  • Confusion or inability to concentrate

Next, you may experience symptoms such as: 

  • Rapid heartbeat 

  • Heavy sweating

  • Extreme weakness or fatigue

  • Blurry vision

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Irritability

  • Fast, shallow breathing

  • Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs

The most serious stage is heat stroke, with symptoms such as:

  • Confusion

  • Loss of coordination

  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating

  • Fainting

  • Throbbing headache

  • Hallucination

  • Seizures

  • Collapse or coma

  • Death

How can I prevent heat stress? 

First, learn to recognize the symptoms. Your employer is required to give you sufficient rest periods at work, and you should rest in the shade or in an air-conditioned place. Stay in the shade avoiding direct heat whenever possible, for example by wearing a hat when working outdoors. If you are working indoors, use fans. It is also advisable to wear loose-fitting clothing in light colors.

It is very important to drink plenty of water and avoid drinks with caffeine and excess sugars, such as soda. When you are working in hot environments, you should drink about a glass of water every 15-20 minutes, which is about a liter of water every hour. Drinking in shorter intervals is more effective than drinking large amounts infrequently. Remember to drink before you are thirsty! When you feel thirsty, you are already experiencing dehydration.

Important! Most heat strokes occur in the first 14 days of work because your body is not yet acclimated to the heat. This period is the most dangerous, especially if you are coming from a different climate or if you are working outdoors and have not worked outdoors in the preceding months.

What should I do if I am experiencing heat stress symptoms?

If you have heat stress symptoms, find a cool, shady area immediately, take a break, and drink water. Cool down with ice packs, if you can. If your symptoms don't improve after 20-30 minutes, seek medical help immediately. To report an emergency in the United States, call 911. 

If someone at work has heat stroke symptoms, call 911. While you are waiting for help, you can help your co-worker by:

  • Immediately bringing your co-worker to a cool or shady area

  • Loosening your co-workers clothes

  • Wetting your co-worker with cold water (if possible, apply ice packs to their body)

  • Getting your co-worker to drink water as soon as possible

  • Staying with your co-worker until help arrives

All workers have the right to protect themselves from heat stress!

Every worker has the right to a safe and healthy workplace, regardless of their immigration status. You have the right to not be subjected to extreme heat conditions. Your employer must keep your workplace free of known health and safety hazards. You also have the right to:

  • Receive health and safety training in your workplace in a language you understand

  • Receive personal protective equipment

  • Request an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection and speak to the inspector

  • Report an injury or illness you got at work

  • View the results of tests performed to find hazards in your workplace

To anonymously report unsafe or unhealthy conditions in your workplace, or to request an inspection of your workplace or your employer-provided housing, call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at 1-800-321-6742 and ask for the closest office. For information on how to file a complaint, visit this site.

The law prohibits retaliation against employees who complain of unsafe or unsanitary conditions at work, such as conditions that cause heat stress. If you think your employer is retaliating against you, you can report retaliation directly to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by phone at the nearest office or online here

This blog is not legal advice. If you or someone you know is experiencing some kind of workplace abuse or problem in your workplace, you can contact Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM). You can call from the United States at 855-234-9699 and from Mexico at 800-590-1773. The hours of operation are Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (CT).

Imágen: Flickr/Antonio 2006 /Vía