A new scientific study has indicated seven out of 10 workers in Europe are experiencing heat stress and failing to maintain water balance in their bodies. The research suggests European workers across several industries are suffering heat stress and dehydration, leading to a decline in occupational safety and work performance.
The study was conducted by the Pan-European Heat-Shield project and coordinated by researchers from the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at University of Copenhagen.
“The very high prevalence of dehydration was a surprise to us, and the potential influence on workers’ cognitive function and motor performance in key industries is quite problematic, because it markedly increases the risk of making mistakes and therefore threatens both safety and productivity,” said Professor Lars Nybo from the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports at University of Copenhagen, and project coordinator for Heat-Shield.
Over a period of two years, the Heat-Shield project assessed the hydration of 139 workers at the beginning and end of their work shifts. The study incorporated workers from Denmark, Cyprus, Greece and Spain, and was conducted across five different industries; agriculture, law enforcement, tourism and construction.
The study combined field data and advanced testing of cognitive and motor function, and revealed how a combination of dehydration and heat stress in the workplace is a direct threat to productivity and safety. A common failure of study participants across all industries was a failure to rehydrate, which inevitably lead to a state of mild to moderate dehydration. When combined with occupational heat stress, dehydration noticeably influenced the workers’ ability to perform complex tasks.
Previous studies have shown even mild dehydration impacts productivity and health and safety. At just 1 percent dehydration, worker productivity decreases by 12 percent. The more dehydrated a worker becomes, the further their capacity for work decreases. Workers dehydrated by only 1 percent begin experiencing decreased cognitive abilities, reduced concentration and alertness, and slower reaction times.
In an 80kg adult male, dehydration of 1 percent signifies a fluid loss of approximately 800ml. With the average industrial worker in Australia sweating anywhere from 1L to 2.5L/hr, dehydration will set in rapidly if lost fluids are not replaced.
Associate Professor at the University of Thessaly, Andreas Flouris, emphasised the problem could be even greater in the near future.
“This is already a problem under the current conditions. However, facing a future with more frequent heatwaves it is of utmost importance for workers to adopt better hydration habits and for companies to develop effective hydration strategies.”
The new findings suggest workplaces would benefit from the implementation of more effective hydration and rehydration strategies, in order to minimise the negative effects of dehydration and occupational heat stress on workplace productivity.