How to Stay Cool When Working in the Heat: Surefire Tips

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

From forest rangers to construction workers, many professions require people to work outdoors. In the spring and fall, this may be a massive advantage of your job. But in winter and summer, the weather conditions can get extreme. 

Working in the summer heat takes a toll on your body, especially if you are performing physical labor. Therefore, it is essential to take the proper precautions to ensure your workday is as safe and enjoyable as possible.

How does heat influence your body when you work?

When working in the heat, your body is under more stress as the temperature rises. It has to go through many physical processes to keep itself in a state of homeostasis. To cool itself, the brain signals blood to rise to the surface of your skin to help cool it down. If there is a high level of humidity in addition to the heat, your body will have an even harder time because the moisture on your skin can’t evaporate as quickly, trapping the heat against your skin.

As more and more blood needs to go to your skin to keep your core temperature from rising too high, there is less blood left for your muscles. Because of this, your heart has to pump harder to make sure your muscles get enough blood flow.

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Two of the most significant risks of working in the heat are heatstroke and heat exhaustion. If you don’t take quick action, heat exhaustion can turn into heatstroke. Anyone with heatstroke needs immediate medical attention; waiting too long before getting help increases the risk of organ or brain damage, and even death in extreme cases.

Symptoms of heatstroke

  • A body temperature greater than 104 F (40 C)
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue

Symptoms of heat exhaustion

  • A high body temperature of up to 104 F (40 C)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness and fainting
  • Headache
  • Sweating 
  • Clammy and cold skin

What to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke

  • Find a cool place in the shade or an air-conditioned room
  • Lie down and keep the legs elevated to get blood flowing toward the heart
  • Place cool, slightly damp towels on the body, especially the face
  • Take a cold shower or bath
  • Sip water or a drink with electrolytes
  • Call emergency services if symptoms get worse or don’t improve 

Things to keep you cool while working in the heat

The best thing you can do to take care of yourself is to take preventative measures. If you set yourself up for success, the odds of your body displaying symptoms of heatstroke or heat exhaustion are very slim. You can even create a to-do list for yourself to go over every morning before heading out for your shift in the heat.

To plan your work as precisely as possible according to the weather, follow the weather forecast in the WeatherWell app, browse heat index charts, and follow standards such as the OSHA Heat Index Guidelines and Korey Stringer Recommendations. 

Hydration

Water is your best friend, whether you are working in the heat or just going for a jog on a summer day. Staying hydrated will help prevent your body temperature from rising too high. In order to stay hydrated, try drinking five to seven ounces of liquids every 20 minutes. It is also essential to drink plenty of water before and after your workday or workout.

Sports drinks are also viable choices.

The electrolytes will help regulate your blood pressure, balance the fluids in your body, and keep everything functioning correctly.

It is ideal to prioritize drinks that have little to no sugar. 

On the other hand, avoiding drinks that will make you dehydrated can be just as important. Many people rely on energy drinks at work to keep them going through their shift, but caffeinated beverages can dehydrate you. Tea, coffee, and alcohol should also be avoided when you are working outdoors.

Frequent breaks

Giving your body a break will help put it back into a state of homeostasis that will allow your body temperature to get back to normal. You can either schedule breaks throughout your workday or simply be aware of when you are starting to feel overheated.

Stepping into the shade or air conditioning for a few minutes will cool down your skin, as well as moderate your heart rate. Sip on liquids while you are on your breaks for maximum effect.

The right diet

Various foods can assist you with keeping cool. Even though spicy food is usually associated with flushed faces, it can actually help you cool down because it makes you sweat. Your blood circulation will increase, and the sweat produced will decrease your skin temperature.

Popsicles and smoothies are other nutritious options. Popsicles come straight out of the freezer, and you can add ice to your smoothies to make them colder. Try to make your smoothies as hydrating as possible; add foods such as watermelon and cucumber with a naturally higher water content per serving. Wheatgrass and coconut water are also known to be very hydrating additions.

Chilled salads are an excellent choice for your lunch break. When you put together the right mixture, they can be very nutritious and filling.

Timing your work

If you have the freedom to choose the hours of your shift, this can be a great tool for minimizing your exposure to extreme heat. It is typically the hottest between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. During these three hours of your workday, try to take your lunch break in the shade or an air-conditioned room. This is also a great time to consume a healthy, hydrating meal and rehydrate with fluids.

If you cannot choose when to take your lunch break, you can try to plan your tasks ahead of time. Perform the most strenuous and physically demanding tasks before and after the critical three hours. This will allow your body to avoid extra stress when the sun is beating down the hardest.

Light clothing

Your face is one of the most vulnerable parts of your body, and wearing a hat can be a great way to provide relief from the sun. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from UV rays, and you can find ones with an extra strap to prevent them from falling off if you are moving around a lot during your work.

Your feet are also very susceptible when it comes to overheating.

The feet have hundreds of thousands of sweat glands that will make your skin cooler by sweating.

Unfortunately, though, this may cause more harm than good if you are not wearing the proper footwear, and your feet could swell up. There are various socks and boots designed for working in the heat.

Loose clothing made of cotton will help your skin breathe and prevent your sweat from staying on your skin, trapping in heat. Wearing clothing with light colors is also a great idea because the sun will reflect more heat than if you were wearing darker colors.

Sunscreen

Protecting your skin from sun damage is an important daily practice whether you are working or simply taking a walk outside. Applying sunscreen to any exposed skin can help prevent conditions such as skin cancer. You may want to use a different sunscreen for your face than your body if the skin on your face tends to be oily.

Time for acclimatization

Allowing your body to acclimate to the heat will relieve you of some of the stresses overheating can cause. For a few weeks before your summer workdays begin, get your body used to the warmer conditions by working out in the sun for two hours a day. Following this guideline will make your transition much more manageable, both mentally and physically!

A cooling vest

Cooling vests are designed to lower your body temperature, and they are a great option for working in the summer months. Ice-chilled cooling vests have ice packs spread throughout the vest that you need to remove every once in a while to refreeze. Another popular summer work clothing option is an evaporative vest, which is dunked in water before use. Whether you wear these under or over your work attire, they can help keep your body temperature at a safe level.

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In addition to a cooling vest, you can also utilize small ice packs or even water bottles filled with ice water. Place them on areas such as your temples, neck, elbows, wrists, behind your knees, and ankles to quickly cool down.

Final thoughts

Most people don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to work outdoors or indoors. Many professions involve physical labor in the heat of the summer, and it can take a toll on the body. Symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and confusion may appear if you become overheated. Extreme cases will bring along heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Taking preventative measures will help you take care of your body and significantly reduce the odds of experiencing symptoms of heatstroke or heat exhaustion. You can try wearing a cooling vest, picking the proper clothing, staying hydrated, and taking regular breaks. Utilizing these tools daily can help keep you and your coworkers safe.

August 2, 2022