Thousands of workers are affected by heat stress every year. It’s a serious illness. Anyone who works outdoors during the summer months is at risk. Oil rig workers are often exposed to high temperatures and hot work environments. High humidity and strenuous physical activity can also cause heat-related illnesses. Protecting oil rig workers from heat stress should be one of your top priorities as we near the onset of summer.
Heat stress can be tricky. Sometimes it progresses slowly and is easy to catch. Other times, it just sneaks up on you. It’s important for all of your workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Hazard recognition is the best way to prevent heat stress.
Let’s take a closer look at what heat stress really is. Then, we’ll talk about how it affects oil rig workers and what you can do to protect them.
Heat Stress: What, why & how to treat
Heat stress is something that happens when a person’s body is no longer able to maintain its normal temperature. It can result in several different kinds of heat-related illnesses. The most common ones are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heat cramps as an illness that causes painful muscle cramps. This happens because of low salt levels.
When a person sweats, they deplete the salt and moisture levels from their body. Normally sweating is a good thing, because it helps regulate body temperature. But if a person loses too much salt in the process, it can result in heat cramps.
Although heat cramps still need to be addressed and taken seriously, it’s the least concerning of the three forms of heat-related illnesses we’ll discuss today.
Signs and Symptoms: Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms in the arms and legs.
Treatment: Drink plenty of water. Replace electrolyte loss with sports drinks every 15-20 minutes. Eat a snack that has extra carbohydrates. Seek medical help if the cramps do not subside within one hour, or if the person has a low-sodium diet or a heart condition.
Heat Exhaustion is more serious than heat cramps. Victims of heat exhaustion have experienced major water loss. According to the CDC, it can lead to a deadly heat stroke if left unaddressed.
Signs and Symptoms: Headache, nausea, dizziness, irritability, thirst, heavy sweating, and elevated body temperature (greater than 100°F).
Treatment: Seek medical help. Remove the worker from the hot area. Give the person liquids to drink while waiting for medical care. Remove any unnecessary clothing, including socks and shoes. Cool the worker with cold water and/or ice packs and cooling towels to the head, neck, and face.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. If an oil rig worker is experiencing a heat stroke, you have a major medical emergency on your hands.
Heat stroke takes place after the body’s temperature regulating system has failed. Or, when the worker’s temperature rises to a critical level (above 104°F).
Signs and Symptoms: Confusion, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and seizures. The victim may also have stopped sweating. That’s because the sweating mechanism has failed, and the body is no longer able to cool itself.
Treatment: Call 911. Emergency medical care is needed as soon as possible. Move the worker to a shaded, cool area. Remove outer clothing. Cool the worker quickly with cold water or an ice bath if possible. Circulate the air around the worker with a fan if available. Place cold cloths or ice packs on the head, neck, armpits, and groin.
How Heat Stress Affects Oil Rig Workers
Whether you’re in Texas or Canada, oil rig workers can experience heat stress and other heat-related illnesses. Both the weather and general working conditions can contribute to heat stress.
High temperatures are the main weather condition that causes heat stress situations. High humidity and excess sunlight can, too. These are all possible weather conditions where most drill sites are located.
Sure, open spaces can also create a breeze which sometimes helps. But on hot, humid days, it’s not always a cool and breezy wind. Sometimes the elements are just unforgiving. Oilfield workers already know this. But, they still need to prepare for it. Especially if they want to protect themselves from heat-related illnesses.
General Working Conditions At Play
It’s good to have hard working employees. You know, the ones who really make an effort and earn their pay. But, sometimes these workers can push themselves a little too far.
The faster a person works, the faster their body generates heat. If it can’t keep up and regulate temperature properly, the person could start to experience symptoms of heat stress.
Working on an oil rig isn’t exactly what you’d call light-duty work. These employees are constantly moving and working hard. And when the sun is beating down on them in 100 degree weather — it’s a recipe for disaster.
Respect the fact that there are some general working conditions at play here. Heat stress is most likely to happen on hot summer days. But, because of the job duties on an oil rig, it could happen any time of the year.
Additionally, some workers are at greater risk than others. This is based on personal factors such as:
- People over the age of 65
- People who are overweight
- Anyone who has high blood pressure or heart disease
- Anyone taking medication that could be affected by high temperatures
Workers with the above characteristics need to be extra careful in order to prevent heat stress. Especially if the weather and general working conditions are not ideal.
Protecting Oil Rig Workers From Heat Stress
There are a lot of ways you can prevent heat stress at your workplace. Remember, every work environment is different. That’s why you should have a Heat Illness Prevention Program in place that is specific to your location.
Oil rig workers face some unique challenges. Below are some things that you can incorporate into your Prevention Program, in order to best protect oil rig workers.
Choosing the Right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Finding a lightweight and breathable FR clothing option is an important way to prevent heat stress. Oil rig workers are required to wear flame-resistant clothing. When working in warm weather conditions, heavy clothing can increase the likelihood of heat stress.
Choose lightweight and breathable FR clothing for your workers, including base layers.
Bulky, uncomfortable, and restrictive clothing creates too many problems. Employees will sweat more profusely, which can lead to heat cramps. And they’ll become tired, frustrated, and unfocused. Their risk of injury just keeps going up.
The same goes for the rest of their PPE. Try to find lightweight body harnesses, hard hats, gloves, and other safety equipment. Not only will your workers appreciate this, but you’ll also reduce their chances of experiencing heat stress.
Training Your Oil Rig Workers
Train your oil rig workers on the hazards of heat stress. They should be able to recognize the signs and symptoms. They also need to know how to respond in an emergency.
Does your company hold monthly safety meetings? Weekly toolbox talks? Give out daily reminders? Regularly train your employees on the hazards of heat stress. During summer months, try to hold weekly discussions on this topic.
Have one-on-one conversations with your most at-risk employees. Let them know how dangerous heat stress can be, and what they should do to protect themselves.
Getting Plenty of Water, Rest, and Shade
Employees should make sure to get plenty of water, rest, and shade. Cool drinking water should be readily available. Fully-shaded or air-conditioned areas are ideal for breaks and rest periods. There isn’t a lot of natural shade at drill sites. Instead, keep cooling trailers or tents nearby where workers can take refuge. Fans and water-sprays are another great choice.
Monitoring for Signs and Symptoms
Designate employees and supervisors to keep an eye on each other. They can look for signs and symptoms of heat stress. Encourage them to use the “buddy system.”
Having an Emergency Plan in Place
It’s important to have a plan in place. When an emergency occurs, you don’t want to be scrambling to figure out what to do — especially in remote areas like drill sites. Be prepared. Communicate the plan to your supervisors and employees. They should know what to do, who to contact, and how to administer basic first aid when necessary.
At RMI, we understand how tough the work conditions can be for anyone in the oil and gas industry. We’re here to help. Reach out to us if you have any other questions on protecting your oil rig workers from heat stress.
For more information, OSHA has a helpful FactSheet on Protecting Workers From the Effects of Heat. Chapter 6 of the CDC’s Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments also gives suggestions on how to prevent and control heat stress.