In Florida, working outdoors usually means working in hot weather. While heat stress is among the risks of working outside, an outdoor work environment can create other hazards to an employee’s health. Based on the work injuries we encounter as workers’ compensation lawyers, we’ve compiled safety tips that workers should keep in mind when they are tasked with working outside.
Stay Cool, Stay Hydrated
Working in the sun on a hot day can lead to several health hazards. Heat stroke, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat rash, and other health problems are common consequences of working outside in a hot climate.
It isn’t always possible to work in the shade but staying out of the sun makes work more comfortable. When workers can’t stay in the shade, it is important to wear clothing that protects the skin from sunburn. In addition to causing pain, sunburn can eventually lead to skin cancer. Workers should minimize their exposure to the sun whenever they can.
If you must work in the sun, apply sunscreen to any area of the body that is not covered by clothing. Sunscreens with an SPF rating of 30 or higher provide the best protection. Reapply sunscreen throughout the day as the manufacturer recommends.
Avoiding sunburn is only one reason to work in the shade. Dehydration is always a risk while working outside on a hot day. Drinking plenty of water (or sports drinks that restore electrolytes) will prevent stomach cramps, fainting, and the other results of dehydration.
Keep Your Food and Drinks Cool
Employers may understand the need to make water available to employees who work outdoors on a hot day, but they might not provide coolers that employers can use to store food. Workers who bring food for meal breaks should remember to pack it in a cooler if they plan to eat sandwiches that might become contaminated in hot weather. It only takes an hour or two for bacteria to grow on lunch meat or egg salad on a hot day.
Warm water hydrates as effectively as cool water. Water of any temperature helps the body sweat, which reduces body heat. Drinking warm water, however, tends to reduce thirst. It’s good to be thirsty in hot weather, because thirst is a motivation to keep drinking water. For that reason, it makes sense to keep drinking water cold, or at least cool.
Wear Appropriate Protective Gear
In addition to dressing to avoid sunburn, workers need to wear appropriate protective gear. That’s just as true for outdoor work as it is for indoor work. Depending on the job, steel-toed boots, eye protection, respirators, and a hard hat may be essential means of avoiding a serious work injury.
Gloves help workers avoid accidents by reducing the risk of dropping tools when palms sweat in hot weather. A cap or sweatband can prevent impaired vision caused by sweat dripping into a worker’s eyes.
Depending on the work environment, outdoor work can also expose employees to insect bites, snake bites, and plants that cause severe skin irritations. Wearing boots and keeping skin covered is the best protection against those hazards. An effective mosquito repellent can also protect against the diseases spread by mosquitos.
Make Sure to Use Your Rest Breaks
Working in the sun promotes fatigue. When a worker’s body is in a hot environment, the body needs to work harder to stay cool. Blood vessels dilate and the body produces sweat. The body directs chemicals to skin cells that are damaged by sunburn. To give the body the energy it needs to make all those changes, the heart beats more quickly and the body burns more calories. Those processes lead to fatigue.
Fatigue is a leading cause of accidents while working. Long hours of work in the sun make it easy to lose focus. Workers need to be alert to avoid accidents. When fatigue sets in, it is more difficult to pay attention to the task at hand. Tired workers are dangerous workers.
Don’t let an employer pressure you to skip the rest breaks that you have been promised. A ten-minute rest break should be a true rest. Sit in the shade, drink some water, eat a quick snack, close your eyes, and really rest. Breaks refresh the mind and body. A rested worker is more likely to recognize dangerous situations and avoid accidents.
Be Aware of Allergies and Chemical Reactions
While indoor work environments may expose employees to chemical irritants, outdoor work carries its own environmental risks. Workers who suffer from pollen allergies should keep track of pollen forecasts. They should be prepared to use their medications to relieve the symptoms of allergies if they may be exposed to an abnormally high pollen count. Wearing a dust mask or a respirator may also be a smart preventive measure.
Many airborne contaminants can lead to occupational diseases. Asbestos is the most well-known example, but workers who inhale smoke, silica from mineral dusts, lead from metallic dusts, or pesticides can all acquire disabling health conditions.
While indoor work exhausts chemical fumes to the outdoors, outdoor work may expose workers to fumes that are part of the outdoor work environment. Short-term inhalation of diesel fumes can cause coughing, eye irritation, and a sore throat. Prolonged inhalation can cause respiratory illnesses. Medical evidence suggests that exposure over decades can cause lung cancer. Respirators help when workers must labor near exhaust fumes.
Protect Your Hearing
When workers who work indoors are exposed to loud noises, OSHA regulations generally require employers to give workers protective equipment to guard against hearing loss. Employers often neglect to furnish the same equipment when workers are outdoors. An outdoor job site, however, can be just as loud as indoor work.
Repeated exposures to loud noise can lead to permanent, incurable hearing loss or tinnitus. Working near a jackhammer, a crane, or other loud equipment can damage hearing. Workers should ask their employers to provide ear protection when they are exposed to a loud working environment, whether they work inside or outside.