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Heat stress in kitchens and other indoor workplaces

The old saying “if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen” speaks to the heart of the problem faced by hospitality and other indoor workers when it comes to heat stress and its related risks.

Heat stress may be more commonly associated with workers performing manual outdoor labour in hot weather, yet indoor workers also face heat stress and dehydration dangers. In fact temperatures in some industrial kitchens often reach 30 degrees or more.

Other indoor workplaces where heat stress and dehydration can be problematic include those containing furnaces and other heat generating machinery, as well as those with metal rooves which trap heat.

This means anyone working in a kitchen, factory, foundry, laundromat or any confined space without air conditioning or airflow is potentially at risk. This is exacerbated by the often-physical nature of their work, according to Safework NSW.

Cleaners too, are at risk of workplace heat stress and dehydration, given they are performing physical tasks after office workers have gone home and turned off the air conditioning.

And because temperatures are becoming increasingly hotter, people are demanding action. In 2017, the union representing hospitality workers and cleaners called for tighter regulation and better enforcement of safe conditions for those working in hot conditions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Heat stress risk factors:

Those workers who are at particularly high risk of heat stress include – but are not limited to – the overweight, physically unfit, drug and alcohol users, anyone with a predisposition for heart or lung disease, and those taking certain medications.

Another risk factor is the clothing or PPE being worn. Thick, heavy or synthetic non-breathable uniforms which trap heat will further add to heat stress dangers.

Warning signs

Symptoms of heat stress may include – but are not limited to – confusion and poor judgement, clammy hands, numbness in the fingers or toes, general fatigue and an elevated pulse.

In extreme cases this can lead to slurred speech, dizziness, fainting, seizures, heart palpitations, intense thirst, nausea, vomiting and loss of consciousness.

Heat stress management

Managers of indoor workplaces are required to provide their staff with a safe workplace, which includes minimising heat stress risks. Installing air conditioning or electric fans will help protect workers, as will regular cleaning and maintenance of cooker hoods and fume extraction or ventilation systems. Other heat stress management strategies include:

• Educating workers
• Monitoring workers
• Encouraging self-pacing
• Cool break areas
• Heat acclimatisation and fitness
• Ice Ingestion
• Hydration
• Nutrition
• Sleep
• Environmental Monitoring
• Heat Stress Management Policy

The role played by hydration

Maintaining hydration in hot work environments is an important element in managing and minimising associated heat stress. Regular consumption of fluids should be encouraged; around 250-300ml every 20 minutes in hot conditions.

However replacing electrolytes lost in sweat should form part of the solution or the excessive consumption of water can lead to dangerously low blood sodium and the potentially deadly condition of hyponatremia.

Electrolytes can be replaced with a good diet however heat often suppresses hunger, meaning that offering a chilled, low-sugar electrolyte drink is an important part of the equation.

For more information on managing and minimising heat stress in the workplace, download THORZT’s comprehensive guide.