Packinghouses, poultry plants, and food processing plants are often hot and humid. Working in the heat can lead to serious health effects, particularly if a worker is not used to working in such an environment and hasn’t had time to adapt.
What Types of Heat-Related Hazards to Look For
Heat radiates into the work environment raising the temperature of the air, and exposes workers directly to the heat energy coming off of hot equipment. Humidity results from the use of large amounts if water and steam, and sources of heat and humidity include:
- Food processing cookers;
- Scalders and use of flames to remove hair from the skin of pigs in slaughter plants and feathers in poultry processing;
- Scalders using high temperature water;
- Cookers in beef and poultry rendering plants;
- Steam vacuums; and
- Carcass washes and other uses of water.
Causes of heat-related illnesses include exposure to:
- High temperature and high humidity;
- Direct exposure to equipment radiating heat;
- Limited air movement;
- Hard physical work; and
- Lack of breaks and lack of access to fluids.
In summer months, the problem of heat stress becomes even worse and workers in meatpacking and poultry plants suffer from serious illnesses from exposure to heat stress.
How do workers get sick and what kind of illnesses can result?
The body gets rid of excess heat by transferring the heat to the skin, and through the evaporation of sweat. When these mechanisms no longer work, a person can suffer from a number of increasingly serious conditions that include:
Fainting (Heat Syncope) if a worker is unacclimatized to a hot environment and stands still in one spot for a period of time. Moving around can prevent fainting from occurring.
Heat rash, or prickly heat, resulting from excessive sweating can plug up sweat ducts and cause an inflammation or rash.
Heat cramps, or painful spasms of the muscles, caused when workers sweat without replacing the salt they have lost.
Heat exhaustion, resulting from prolonged sweating, loss of fluids and salt. Victims experience extreme weakness or fatigue, dizziness, clammy or moist skin, sometimes fainting.
Heat stroke, resulting from the body’s inability to get rid of excess heat, presents the most serious health problem. Mental confusion and delirium occur, and if not treated promptly, victims of heat stroke will go into a coma and can die.
Unacclimatized workers, or workers whose bodies have not adjusted to working in high heat and high humidity, are most susceptible to developing a heat-related illness. These workers may include new workers, workers who have moved to a new job, or workers who have been off of work for several weeks.
Methods for Reducing and Controlling Exposure to Heat
Engineering controls are the best method to reduce heat and humidity. Examples of engineering controls include:
- Air conditioning to reduce the air temperature and control humidity;
- Fans to increase air movement and move air across the skin to remove excess heat, and evaporate sweat ;
- Insulation to reduce the amount of radiant heat; and
- Dehumidifiers to reduce humidity.
Work Practice and Administrative Controls
In packing and food processing plants, engineering controls often do not totally control the hazard of heat stress. Work practice and administrative controls must also be used.
Acclimatization. Workers must be allowed to get used to working in the heat. This is essential to reducing heat stress, but it does take time. It usually takes about a week for a worker to become adjusted to working in a hot environment. This applies to both new workers and workers who have been away from the job for a week or more.
Provide frequent rest breaks in cool, air-conditioned areas.
Provide plenty of water and sports drinks which replace salts lost through sweating.
Make water and liquids readily available to all workers working in hot areas.
Conduct training for workers and management to recognize the early signs of heat stress.
PPE includes insulated gloves to protect against hot surfaces; and
rain gear for sanitation workers who use hot steam and hot water to clean machinery and equipment.
Follow the guidelines of the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists for heat stress which provide work/rest regimens based upon work load, air temperature, humidity levels, and radiant heat (for example from hot ovens).