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COVID-19, PPE and heat stress: beware of distraction

COVID-19, PPE and heat stress: beware of distraction

A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 precautions have become a part of routine daily life. But hot weather adds another consideration.

"While the use of face coverings, masks, face shields, gloves, and eye protection may not increase core body temperature - a warning sign for heat stress - workers may still feel hot and uncomfortable when wearing them," says WSPS Occupational Hygiene Consultant Michael Puccini. "This could distract them from their tasks and present a safety hazard."

Heat stress, a serious and potentially fatal condition, may occur when a worker's core temperature rises above 38°C. The most likely piece of COVID-related personal protective equipment (PPE) to raise our core body temperature is a full-body medical gown, but it’s used mostly in health care settings.

So why does facial PPE make us feel as though our temperature is rising?

"When we exhale while wearing a face covering or mask, we feel warm and moist air against our skin and our mask may get damp, which makes us feel hotter," explains Michael. Distraction - and more serious consequences - may follow.

Michael offers an example: on a hot, humid day, a lift truck driver wearing a mask drives into and out of transport trailers. Perspiration on his face makes the mask feel heavier. Distracted by the sensation, the driver operates the vehicle with one hand while repeatedly pulling the mask away from his face to cool his skin and allow the moisture to evaporate. As the driver fiddles with his mask, he moves dangerously close to the edge of the loading dock.

How can you prevent incidents like this from happening? Borrow elements from your existing heat stress program to alleviate workers' concerns and help them feel cooler when wearing face coverings or masks.

1. Have safety talks with your employees before and during hot weather. The more information they have, the greater their ability to differentiate between heat stress and discomfort due to face coverings or masks.

  • discuss symptoms and early warning signs of heat stress, including thirst, headache, heavy sweating, fatigue, increased body temperature, dizziness, and decreased cognitive function. Encourage workers to monitor themselves and others for signs of heat stress.
  • reassure workers that wearing a face covering or mask does not increase the risk of heat stress but may make them feel hot and uncomfortable. Talk about the potential safety and productivity consequences of being distracted.
  • list actions they can take to feel more comfortable.

2. Be prepared for discomfort complaints. "Welcome feedback so workers know you are listening to their concerns," says Michael. Reinforce protocols already in place for communications between workers and supervisors.

3. Offer a range of solutions, such as taking 5- or 10-minute cooling breaks, drinking plenty of fluids, and changing masks if they are damp. Wet masks may make it seem more difficult to breathe, contributing to feelings of being too hot. If other measures are needed, apply strategies for dealing with heat stress, such as setting up cooling fans (following COVID protocols), scheduling heavy work for cooler times of day, and rotating workers to less strenuous tasks.

In the meantime, suggests Michael, review your heat stress program to ensure it takes into account any changes implemented in the last few months, COVID-related or otherwise. "Have you introduced new equipment or activities that require you to adjust your control program?"

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