The West Australian summer sun is ferocious and this year the experts tell us is going to be a hot one, hotter than average.
Working in the harsh Australian heat increases the risk of dehydration and heat stress for Australian workers. Most at risk are those working outdoors performing physically intensive labour and indoor workers who are exposed to high temperatures with poor ventilation. This includes miners, construction workers, factory workers and warehouse workers to name but a few.
Not a problem for those of us who can head back to the air conditioning, whether that be in the site hut or the ute, to have a break but how do we look after the guys out on site?
Heat stroke is a life threatening condition as we all know, but even mild heat exhaustion or dehydration can have a dramatic impact on your team. A few days of pushing it a little too hard is going to have them run down and lethargic, production suffers and the chances of an accident or incident skyrocket.
So as a manager or supervisor what are some practical things you could do to help your team?
1. Talk about it.
Tool box meetings and pre-start talks are a great time to talk about strategies to beat the heat. These can be the strategies at work and also what they can do at home to help.
Studies show that over half of Australian workers show up to work already 2% dehydrated, so preparing to work in the heat is important. The team needs to drink plenty of fluids in the hours before the shift so that they are not starting the work day with a fluid deficit.
Avoid consuming caffeine before and during the shift (this includes coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks). Caffeine has a diuretic effect which increases water loss and contributes to dehydration.
Alcohol is a diuretic and over consumption can cause severe dehydration. Whilst a cold beer after a long hot day is wonderful, over consumption means you may not recover and your dehydration levels will only worsen.
2. Don’t wait until they are thirsty
They say you shouldn’t wait until you are thirsty to drink. If you are thirsty you are already dehydrated. Instead, drinking small amounts frequently at regular intervals is the way to go. 250mls every 15-20 mins is the recommendation for working in the heat, so remind the guys frequently to drink, drink, drink. That’s over 6 litres per day.
Also please note, ice cold water causes the blood vessels in the stomach to constrict, reducing the rate of fluid absorption. Cool water is absorbed faster, which is important to keep you hydrated when working in the heat.
3. Water must be readily available.
You are more inclined to drink when fluid is readily available. Your team should aim to refill an 800ml drink bottle at least once every hour and have it right there next to them, at all times.
4. Get them to Monitor their Number One’s
Urine Colour is the easiest way to monitor your hydration levels. Make sure you have the wee chart on the wall above the site toilet.
5. Adequate Meal Breaks
Make sure the team have their breaks and whilst water is critical, food is too. Hot soggy sandwiches can look a bit unappetising and if you’re hot and bothered your appetite can drop off. Food contains water and is one of the primary means by which we replace lost fluids on a daily basis. Eating food also helps to stimulate the thirst response, causing you to drink more.
Fruit is cheap and a really cold crunchy apple or juicy orange out of the esky or fridge can be a great boost for the team.
6. Work Smarter – Not Harder
Where possible schedule harder work and physically demanding tasks for cooler parts of the day. When this is unavoidable, consider sharing the load / rotating with another co-worker. Ensure adequate work-rest cycles are in place, check the forecast at the start of each day and adjust the work/rest cycles accordingly.
7. Dress Appropriately
Ensure the team are wearing cotton workwear, if you provide the longs and longs for the team ensure its 100% cotton. Organic fibres breath better and promote airflow whereas synthetic fibres trap heat, increasing the likelihood of heat stress.
Wetting your shirt is another great way to cool down so if you have access to a hose you can encourage the team to soak their shirts, it’s like their own personal air conditioning.
Some accessories are becoming popular and a hard hat brim is a cheap as chips way to keep the sun off their face and neck and a definite must for working in the Aussie sun. Cooling neck ties are a fairly cheap item too, submerge in cold water for 5-10 mins then place around the wrist or neck for 25-30 mins of cooling, refreshment.
All of the solutions above are practical and do-able on even the busiest sites. Give your hardworking team a bit of mothering this summer and keep them cool and safe out there.