Workplace safety expert calling for new guidelines on working in the heat
In a tiny hot metal room at the University of Ottawa, Katrin Bachmann was hard at work, pumping her legs on a recumbent bicycle.
Hooked up to machines that monitored her breathing, her heart rate and her body temperature, the 51-year-old was sweating for science: to help researchers better understand how middle-aged and older adults deal with extreme heat.
“I think it’s good to know if we are affected by heat. Especially for those who are working in the heat, it’s really good to set some base numbers so they stay safe,” she said.
“I know somebody working in construction, and they suffer quite a lot in the heat, and in cold, too, but in the heat even more.”
Research like this has led Glen Kenny, a professor of physiology at the University of Ottawa who works in this lab, to believe that the current guidelines on heat stress are inadequate to protect all workers, especially those above 40 and who suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes.
That’s because older adults don’t deal as well with heat as younger people.
WATCH: Impact of extreme temperatures on vulnerable people
Bachmann had to bail out of the test early due to a pounding headache. As she sat with a cold towel around her neck and water in her hand, she told Global News, “It feels like the blood flow is getting so slow. Almost like you don’t have blood, thick oil in your veins. It’s not moving. It’s stuck and not pumping. Very uncomfortable.”
“One of the things that we know is as we get older, our ability to dissipate heat is compromised,” said Kenny.
And right now, the guidelines are one size fits all. “Most guidelines that are currently in place have been developed for young workers,” Kenny said. “They don’t take into account age-related changes, nor do they take into account an individual who may have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or hypertension.”
Currently, although companies have an obligation to protect the health and safety of their workers, there aren’t generally specific temperature limits set on work, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
However, most provincial governments suggest guidelines based on thresholds provided by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Essentially, said Kenny, these say that the hotter it is, the more frequent breaks need to be – with times prescribed along a scale.
But these times don’t reflect older workers’ needs, he thinks. “The challenge is that the guidelines that many of the government agencies are basing their recommendations on come from information that’s been collected from young adults.” Not only that, but often the tests were based on only a few hours of hot-weather activity — not a full work week.
Especially when working eight to 10 hours day after day, he said, workers get dehydrated by the end of the day, and then arrive at work the next day even more dehydrated. Their heat tolerance drops after several days too, “So they’re at greater risk of heat-related injuries and illness,” Kenny noted.
WATCH: Some New Brunswick workers can’t escape high temperatures during heat wave
Older people can’t dissipate the heat they generate when they work as well as younger people.
“Our sweat glands don’t produce as much sweat. As well we don’t infuse our skin with as much blood to transfer that heat to the skin’s surface so we can get rid of that heat.”
People are referring to these guidelines because it’s all that they have right now, said Kenny. He hopes to work with government and industry to develop guidelines that can be more tailored to individual workers’ needs, to prevent more heat-related injuries in future.
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