By Mike Markovsky
Physical dehydration can be insidious and, depending on each individual’s state of hydration and tolerance level to thirst signals, it can have a profound impact on business. Recently, the detrimental effects of personal dehydration have begun to come into focus in the industrial environment. A growing body of evidence points to dehydration as one of the most widespread and least understood hindrances—and dangers—on the job. Let’s consider some facts:
- A number of studies have been done over time linking dehydration to lower physical and mental performance.For example, Wasterlund and Chaseling1 studied forest workers in a controlled environment, where one group was properly hydrated and the other dehydrated to an extent of about one percent of body weight loss (mild dehydration is defined as less than five percent2). The measure was the time required to debark and stack 2.4cubic meters of pulpwood. The result was a 12-percent decrease in productivity from the dehydrated group.There are many more studies that attained comparable results. With respect to mental performance, Gopinthan,et al.3 studied the effects of dehydration on decision-making and cognitive performance, which could result in a decline in productivity and also could be associated with an increased risk of work-related accidents. In this study, subjects were passively dehydrated by one, two,three and four percent of body weight with specific testing throughout the decline. The study concluded that visual motor tracking, short-term memory, attention and arithmetic efficiency were all impaired at dehydration levels of two percent of body weight or more. In the extreme, the Gopinthan study also noted a 23-percentreduction in reaction time when subjects were four percent dehydrated.
- It’s been estimated that up to 80 percent of the US adult population goes through their normal day in at least a mildly dehydrated. And, if one reports for work dehydrated, the odds of that circumstance improving during the day aren’t very good.
- When an employee is performing physical work, sweat output can easily outpace water intake, which will lead to dehydration. And, more severe working conditions can accelerate dehydration. Bishop, et al.4 observed that fully encapsulated protective clothing increased sweat rates up to 2.25 liters (0.6 gallons) per hour. In the simplest of terms, what fluids leave the body must be replaced or dehydration is inevitable.
- Finally, evidence from several studies seems to indicate that dehydration may be linked to job-related accidents by causing orthostatic intolerance. Adolph5 cited that dehydrated subjects fainted more quickly when subjected to an orthostatic challenge test (a change in body posture). Similarly, Carter, et al. established that at a three-percent dehydrated state from heat exposure subjects experienced a significant reduction in cerebral blood flow velocity when changing from a seated to a standing position.
Assessing hydration status
The conventional wisdom of eight glasses a day doesn’t hold water (pun intended) when one considers the wide variety of body sizes, shapes, states of wellness and the level of outside influences to which each individual is subjected daily. Assessing urine color, although it has limitations, is one of the best methods of superficially monitoring hydration. This personal assessment certainly involves the individual employee’s commitment and best intentions.
Hydration action planning
Improving overall employee hydration is best accomplished through the use of a three-pronged approach including education, assessment, and implementation of best practices for encouraging fluid intake during the workday.
The most critical component is employee involvement. The personal benefits of proper hydration span all facets of a person’s life. The cognitive and performance-based advantages gained from good hydration at work will, obviously, be available after work as well. From an employee’s perspective, proper hydration involves a decision to improve and the determination to make assessing their hydration state and staying hydrated habitual. Companies should make hydration education an ongoing part of employee communications. Employees should be made aware of the downside of drinking soda and coffee in the interest of hydration. Both usually contain caffeine, which is a diuretic that will act to further dehydrate the body, while the person drinking them may think they are alleviating dehydration. And, any sugar content further taxes the body, due to its processing demand, again serving to dehydrate. These and other pertinent facts should be reinforced consistently through training and visual reminders.
The best way to assess hydration status, given the variables of body mass, work routines and other environmental and personal issues, is to monitor urine color. Urine that is clear to light yellow is a reasonable indicator of proper hydration. However, heavy consumption of water to overcome darker color urine can falsely lighten subsequent urinations, as it may take up to 24 hours for the body to assimilate sufficient additional fluids to fully rehydrate itself. The key is consistent hydration and consistent assessment, with which urine color becomes more stable and monitoring becomes much more accurate. Again, this should all be part of the ongoing education program. Local hospitals usually have dieticians or other professionals on staff who are eager to help build educational and reminder programs.
The critical third facet in the hydration plan is making drinking water very readily accessible and appealing. While plumbing codes mandate the availability of drinking fountains in commercial buildings, they do not cover either maintenance or water quality issues. With respect to maintenance, consider your own personal acceptance of drinking fountains in the workplace. Are the facilities for providing drinking water inviting enough for you to use them regularly? Don’t forget that employers will be asking employees to use these facilities much more frequently than ever as part of an increased hydration initiative. How does the water taste?
Many companies moved to bottled water over the years. While that approach can certainly encourage hydration, it is both expensive and environmentally insensitive. In the US alone, we use 50 billion small (half-liter) bottles of water each year, and place between 30 and 40 billion of those containers in landfills. Bottled water may handle the access to acceptable water issue, but it will inevitably create another problem down the line. Consider upgrading your existing, installed drinking fountains with advanced products that encourage use and can become an active part of your hydration reminder program. Chilled water, filtered to remove the chlorine taste, with enhanced low-maintenance features will allay sanitary fears.
Encouraging employee hydration can have significant impact on your company’s overall performance and safety record, as well as the general welfare and health of your staff. It requires a firm commitment on the part of management, complete buy-in from employees who will be asked to alter their personal habits, and continuous reinforcement from all involved.
- Wasterlund, D.S.; Chaseling, J.; Burstrom, L. The effect of fluid consumption on the forest workers’ performance strategy. Applied Ergonomics, 35:29-36, 2004.
- Gopinathan, P.M.; Pichan, G.; Sharma, V.M. Role of dehydration in heat stress-induced variations in mental performance. Archives of Environmental Health, 43:15-17, 1988.
- Bishop, P.A.; Pieroni, R.E.; Smith, J.F.; Constable, S.H. Limitations to heavy work at 21 degrees C of personnel wearing the US Military chemical defense ensemble. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 62: 216-220, 1991.
- Van Loan, M: Age, gender, and fluid balance, in Buskirk, E.R. and Puhl, S.M. (eds): Body Fluid Balance: Exercise and Sport. Boca Raton: CRC Press, pp. 215-230, 1996.
- Carter, R. 3rd; Cheuvront, S.N.; Vernieuw, C.R.; Sawka, M.N. Hypo- hydration and prior heat stress exacerbates decreases in cerebral blood flow velocity during standing. Journal of Applied Physiology, 101:1744-1750, 2006.
About the author
Mike Markovsky is Vice President of Marketing for Haws Corporation of Sparks, NV. The company designs, manufactures and distributes drinking fountains and emergency equipment that are ranked #1 in quality by specifiers in both product categories. Markovsky can be reached at (775) 353-8378 or [email protected]. Learn more at www.Hawsco.com.