For most of the year my dog Charlie eats the same quantity of food everyday: three cups of kibble and four Milk-Bone treats washed down with half a gallon of water.
But when the weather turns blazing hot he doesn’t touch the water in his bowl, he eats very little and he becomes weak and lethargic. Charlie was short-changed on the survival instincts I thought all animals have.
How good are human instincts when it comes to surviving high temperatures? From what I have read we are smarter than Charlie but not by much. There are many people who think they are tough, “I can handle it.” And there are many business managers who think employee discomfort isn’t something they should have to think about. That’s a mistake for both the employee and the business.
When it’s hot, productivity and profits can drop. Years ago I worked with a company that had large warehouse/distribution centers in the Southwest. Every summer they saw profits drop, quality problems increase and labor costs jump.
After weeks of discussing the problem while sitting in air-conditioned offices the managers finally talked with the employees and asked why there were so many problems during the hot months. The employees pointed out the high temperature in a warehouse that was the size of a couple of football fields. That meant they had to walk a long way for water or the bathroom and could be docked if they left their workstations outside of their scheduled break time.
They told the management what should have been obvious: the employees were exhausted early in the day and had a hard time staying on the job, let alone doing a good job. Fortunately there was a new human resources manager in place who spent time with the employees and developed a few recommendations: allow the employees to start their shifts at 5 a.m.; put water coolers throughout the plant; and allow loading dock employees to rotate between the loading dock and other work stations to spread the pain of the hottest and stinkiest job in the warehouse.
The HR manager also asked to implement a “gain-sharing” bonus plan that would pay the employees half of any savings from improved productivity. Of course it worked. The changes in work schedules during the hot months and the readily available water improved the employee’s energy level and ability to pay attention. Temporary workers were no longer filling in for sick employees. The employees received an average of $500 for the improved performance over the summer months.
Heat-related illnesses are not always obvious. The effects of heat creep up on people and may not be noticed until the situation is dangerous. Some people are more likely than others to experience heat-related illness but everyone should take precautions.
Employers are expected to put safeguards in place for those employees working in the summer heat, stuck in a poorly ventilated hot warehouse or on a loading dock. It doesn’t take much time or money to prevent heat-related illnesses.
Train employees and supervisors to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses
Provide enough cool water for each employee to drink a quart of water an hour
Remind employees to drink before they become thirsty; hourly water breaks are recommended.
Allow employees new to working in the hot sun or a hot warehouse to acclimate over a five-day period. By the fifth day they should be adjusted and able to work a full shift.
The OSHA FactSheet and Washington’s Labor & Industry guidance both indicate that heat-related illness can occur even in temperatures less than 90 degrees. Heavy or bulky safety clothing, medications, physical exertion, pregnancy, or lack of acclimation to heat combined with high temperatures, fumes and lack of ventilation can cause a person to experience health problems.
Heat stroke is the most dangerous condition. If a person appears confused, has a high body temperature but is not sweating that person needs immediate help at a hospital.
Heat exhaustion symptoms include feeling dizzy, weak, confused, thirsty and experiencing nausea and heavy sweating. Plenty of liquids along with cold compresses and medical attention may quickly revive the individual. Heat cramps and heat rash are less serious but still unpleasant and painful.
I have to watch my dog Charlie carefully right now and make sure he is eating and drinking. With a little coaxing, a few salty peanuts and midnight trips to wade in the creek he is doing much better.
Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.