American singer and songwriter Lana Del Rey had everyone singing along to “Summertime Sadness” from her 2012 album Born to Die: The Paradise Edition. ROWAN WATT-PRINGLE takes a look at ways to overcome the occupational blues
Working in the extreme African heat puts a lot of stress on a person’s cooling system, especially when workers are required to wear heavy or thick Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Coupled with the effects of physical exertion, fluid loss, fatigue and pre-existing medical conditions, working in the summer heat can lead to heat exhaustion or, in more severe cases, heatstroke, potentially resulting in permanent disability or even death.
In the early part of summer, while workers are still acclimatising to rising temperatures, they may be even more susceptible to the effects of working in extreme heat, while many may not even be aware of the perils they face. “I believe that there is a general lack of awareness about the effects of heat stress in most industries,” says John Wernick, managing director of AMS Haden, a Roodepoort-based company that imports, distributes and manufactures instruments for environmental monitoring and control, mine ventilation, occupational hygiene and process control.
Most employers are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to heat stress risk management, he says, because legislation is not very stringent. “Employers are required to monitor temperature conditions, but the frequency of monitoring is not stipulated,” he explains. “More guidelines are needed. Industry has been allowed to self-regulate in the past and this has not been effective. The mining industry, however, is one sector that does take heat stress very seriously. They have training and screening programmes in place for workers, alongside the use of monitoring instrumentation.”
South Africa’s extreme summer heat can have a major impact. Wernick points out that heat stress is a significant contributor to lost production, adding that workers need to take regular breaks and hydrate properly to avoid heat exhaustion in severe conditions.
Monitoring conditions is the first response when it comes to dealing with extreme heat, with a wide variety of instrumentation available, as well as some new innovations entering this field. Wernick says that the most common form is area monitoring, but that personal monitoring is far more effective when it comes to managing risks. “Personal monitoring can also serve as a screening process to identify workers prone to heat stress,” he says, adding that ice jackets are regularly used in extreme conditions, while there are also a number of new substances being used very successfully in these jackets instead of ice.
The mining industry is an obvious point of reference for other sectors to learn from and there are a variety of instruments that assist companies in making sure that their workers are not being put in danger. Whirling hygrometers are used by workers underground to monitor wet and dry bulb temperatures, which Wernick says are important indicators of potential heat stroke conditions.
He points to outdoor heat stress monitors (which monitor wet bulb, dry bulb and globe temperature, and include realtime cloud-based data and logging features) as a great choice for monitoring workplace conditions, noting that AMS Haden has supplied these to Harmony Gold, who have deployed them on various mining sites.
Instrumentation not only monitors extreme conditions, but can also provide recommended schedules for work, rest and hydration based on the conditions recorded. This should be supported by actions from the company, which may vary depending on the type of work being undertaken, while it is vital to have a detailed emergency plan in place to react to situations if they do arise. Steps like avoiding working in direct sunlight and scheduling heavy work for cooler parts of the day can make a big difference in above-ground jobs where workers are required to wear PPE.
Providing better training for workers about the dangers of heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them also greatly increases the chance of avoiding incidents in the workplace. It is important for workers to recognise whether they might be at a higher risk of heat stress. Certain medications, for example, greatly increase the risk. Some antidepressants and cold and allergy medications can decrease sweating, while certain pills for high blood pressure can increase dehydration, and ADHD medication such as Ritalin increases body temperature. Pre-existing medical conditions – hypertension, long-standing diabetes, obesity and pulmonary or cardiovascular issues – may also greatly increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, while in general older people, particularly those over the age of 60, are also more susceptible.