What You Need to Know About Heat Stress Caused by PPE
When you suit up with personal protective equipment (PPE), your risk for experiencing a heat related illness escalates. Inside the gear, your body loses its ability to self-cool through sweat evaporation. Your body temperature can quickly rise to a dangerous level, causing physiological stress to the body, heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. The equipment can hold in your body’s heat and moisture, which causes a rise in temperature and humidity inside the gear.
PPE, including surgical face masks or respirators, gowns, waterproof aprons, plastic face shield, eye shield or goggles, shoe covers, caps/bouffants, gloves and hazmat suit, is essential gear to protect healthcare workers from pathogens and industrial workers from dirt transfer and chemical exposure. However, prolonged use of PPE has been shown to cause heat stress in workers. If you have to wear PPE at work, it’s important to know the signs of heat stress before it deteriorates into a serious illness.
Signs of Heat Stress
- Excessive sweating
- Dark colored, strong odor urine
- Lack of urine
- Flushed, red skin
- Dry skin
- Loss of balance
- Difficulty thinking
- Slurred speech
Prevention of Heat Stress
There are a few things you can do when you know you have to wear PPE for an extended period of time to ward off heat stress and heat-related illnesses. If possible, begin by being as cool as possible. Start your work well-hydrated. Have cool water or electrolyte fluids on hand for constant replenishment. Use a buddy system to watch out for each other to make sure your coworkers are not overheating. Schedule frequent cooling breaks where the PPE can be taken off and fluids replenished. Consider personal cooling systems such as cooling vests, water-cooled garments or cool tek clothing designed to wick away moisture.
Treatment of Heat Stress
When you’ve become overheated, you need to rehydrate with cool water and electrolyte-balanced fluids. Safely remove your PPE and rest in a cool place, practicing social distancing. Apply cool, wet towels to the skin or ice packs wrapped in a cloth.
Symptoms of heat stroke—including loss of consciousness, confusion, no sweating/red skin, and slurred speech—require immediate medical attention. Call 911 or take the patient to the nearest emergency room (ER).Being careful to prepare for each work shift that requires PPE, being alert to how you are feeling and how your coworkers are doing, and quickly treating any signs of heat stress will help you weather the warm conditions caused by wearing PPE at the workplace.