Health Risks of Working Outdoors: Seven Facts Employees Need to Know
Working outdoors can be a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is a growing body of research that shows how spending time outside is good for our health. In fact, a recent systematic review published in Environmental Research found that green spaces are associated with reduced levels of cortisol, as well as lower risk of disease and death.
On the other hand, working outdoors is often fraught with daily perils. From sporadic weather to insect-borne illnesses and other hazards, many outdoor employees simply aren’t aware of the dangers that come with their occupation.
To highlight the specific hazards and health risks that are common when working outdoors, here are seven facts that employees need to know.
- Outdoor Workers Are at High Risk of UV Exposure
Skin cancer is a serious health concern for outdoor employees. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, researchers compared skin cancer risks between indoor and outdoor workers.
Unsurprisingly, their findings revealed that the risk of skin cancer was significantly increased in outdoor workers of every skin type. The reason for this is that ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a known carcinogenic agent that is associated with melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
Per OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.132(a), employers are required to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for serious hazards, which include overexposure to the sun’s radiation. However, employees should also be proactive about their skin health by following sun safety measures.
In addition to using a daily SPF, outdoor employees should know how to self-examine their skin each month to check for suspicious-looking moles. Catching skin cancer early, particularly melanoma, can make the difference between life and death.
- Heat-Related Illness Kills Over 600 People Each Year
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Picture of America Report, an average of about 658 people die from extreme heat annually. Heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion are all too-common in outdoor workers. They’re also entirely preventable.
Those who work outside are sometimes engaged in physical activity, resulting in elevated body temperatures. When the outside temperature soars, internal body temperatures can reach dangerous levels and cause profuse sweating, confusion, fainting, seizures and even death.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of heat illness is only part of the equation. To stay safe on the job, outdoor employees should drink fluids throughout the day, take plenty of breaks and seek the shade whenever possible.
- Dehydration Is Common in the Winter
Everyone associates dehydration with the hotter days of summer. However, the importance of hydration during the winter months shouldn’t be ignored.
Working outdoors in colder climates can throw off the body’s fluid balance in several ways. First, fluid intake is lower during the winter because we typically don’t feel as thirsty like we do in the summer.
Another contributing factor to dehydration in the winter is an elevated sweat rate. During the winter, we tend to sweat more due to wearing bulkier winter clothing. Outdoor workers in construction, farming and similar occupations tend to exert more energy, resulting in greater sweat loss.
- It Doesn’t Need to be Freezing to Get Hypothermia
Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can gain it back, resulting in a dangerously low internal body temperature (below 95 degrees F). Even during seemingly mild temperatures, symptoms of cold-stress can make themselves known.
The scary thing about hypothermia is that it often causes confusion, which means that the individual may not realize they’re in danger. For this reason, outdoor workers should be trained to recognize the symptoms of cold stress (loss of coordination, slurred speech, confusion, etc.) in their coworkers and wear appropriate cold-weather gear.
- Vector-Borne Illnesses Are on the Rise
Ticks, mosquitoes and fleas are another occupational hazard for outdoor employees. According to statistics from the CDC, vector-borne diseases such as Zika, Lyme and dengue have tripled in the United States from 2004 to 2016.
Vector-borne diseases occur in every state in the country and pose a health threat to every outdoor worker. Though these diseases are difficult to control and prevent, there are steps that employees can take to reduce their risk of being bitten by mosquitoes, fleas and ticks.
The CDC recommends using an EPA-registered insect repellent to protect against the spread of vector-borne diseases. Additionally, outdoor workers should wear long-sleeved shirts and pants that have been treated with Permethrin, an insecticide made from the chrysanthemum flower.
- Soda and Alcohol Can Increase Risk of Injury
Though indoor workers can get away with drinking soda, this may not be such a good idea for outdoor employees. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Physiology, drinking soft drinks during and after intense exercise in the heat can increase the risk of acute kidney injury in healthy adults.
Outdoor workers should also pay close attention to their hydration strategy in the winter. Both caffeine and alcohol can restrict the body’s blood vessels, resulting in greater loss of body heat and increasing the risk of hypothermia. OSHA encourages workers to drink water over any other type of beverage and specifically don’t recommend drinks that contain caffeine, alcohol or high amounts of sugar.
- Summer Is the Most Dangerous Season for Lightning Strikes
According to an OSHA fact sheet, lightning is an overlooked occupational hazard, striking roughly 300 people each year. Though this may not seem like a high risk to most people, outdoor occupations such as roofers, construction workers and utility technicians are at an increased risk of being struck by lightning.
While lightning can strike year-round, it’s most common during the summer. According to the National Weather Service, lightning has already killed at least two people this year—both males in their 40s.
The vast majority of lightning strike victims comprises men. While experts aren’t entirely sure why this may be, the common theory is that this number reflects the greater number of men in outdoor occupations.
Staying Safe on the Job
Between deadly weather, extreme temperatures and vector-borne diseases, outdoor employees must be vigilant about their safety. While these facts highlight some dangers that outdoor workers face, it’s far from extensive.
Many health risks and outdoor hazards are specific to the area and the occupation in question. To improve employee safety, getting the proper training and equipment/gear is essential to remaining safe and productive while working outdoors.