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Protect yourself from heat illness

From University of Wisconsin Extension

Heat exposure kills more people each year than floods, tornadoes, lightning, and hurricanes combined. Heat kills more than 1,000 people each year in the US. Young children and elderly people have a higher potential for heat-related problems since they can have a more difficult time regulating temperature. Because of outside work, many agricultural workers are at high risk. A recent study by the CDC found that 68 crop production workers died from heat exposure from 1992-2006.

Heat-related illness can develop quickly and progress to deadly stages. Heat exhaustion, an early stage of heat-related illness can move into “heatstroke.” A significant percentage of people who develop heatstroke will die.

Several studies suggest that high body temperature from working in the heat can impair the ability to think correctly and make complex decisions. Reaction time can also be adversely affected leading to major safety concerns for any person who operates dangerous farm equipment or works in close contact with large animals.

It’s difficult to give a specific temperature or humidity level that will “warn” people of unsafe conditions. During physical work, our body generates heat. During intense work like lifting bales, shoveling, or moving animals, workers can have a hard time cooling themselves. Working in sunlight also raises body temperature including working in an enclosed cab of a tractor with no air conditioner and minimal air movement. A worker’s ability to stay cool also depends on clothing, physical conditioning to heat and humidity, and level of health and fitness.

A Few Practical Actions:

Plan strenuous tasks for cooler times of the day (morning or very late afternoon). Watch for outdoor conditions and adjust assignments to reduce risk. Communicate and demonstrate safety actions to workers in a language they understand. Take frequent breaks. Get out of the heat and sunlight as you rest. Fans help evaporate sweat providing an important cooling effect. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing. A hat also provides sun protection, but should be loose and well-ventilated. Apply sunscreen to protect against sunburn and skin cancer.

Drink often! Dehydration accelerates heat illness potential. Water is the best (and least expensive) drink for outdoor work. Sweating is the body’s natural mechanism for dissipating heat (as sweat evaporates, it carries heat energy away, cooling the body).  Sports drinks are okay for most people, but avoid sugary soda and caffeine. Salt tablets are not recommended unless advised by your doctor (this will rarely be the case). If you must restrict fluid intake because of a medical condition, check with your doctor about how you can safely work in hot weather. For workers and employers, knowing about underlying health problems (high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, etc.) is an important part of any occupational safety program.

For healthy people, it’s usually a safe bet to drink at least eight ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes. Thirst is a poor sign of being dehydrated, so drink even if you are not thirsty. When you use the restroom, if your urine has lots of color or is relatively dark, you likely need to drink more. If you are working on a hot, humid day, stay away from fatty foods and limit protein intake. Choose foods with high water content like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Know the Signs of Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke.

Here are a few indicators and recommendations from the American Red Cross:

• Heat exhaustion: cool, moist, pale, or flushed skin with heavy sweating; headache; nausea or vomiting; dizziness; and exhaustion. A person with heat exhaustion may have a normal or rising body temperature. If you suspect heat exhaustion, move to a cool, shaded place. Loosen clothing and apply moist cloth to the forehead, wrists, and chest to cool them down. A person who is alert should drink cool fluid every 15 minutes. If symptoms don’t improve after an hour, see a qualified health professional. A person with underlying health problems should see a doctor right away.

• Heatstroke: hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. A person experiencing heatstroke can have a high body temperature -- sometimes as high as 105°F. Skin will often feel dry. Heatstroke MUST be treated as a life-threatening emergency. Call for emergency assistance (911). While you wait for help, the person must be cooled quickly. Immerse the victim in cool (not ice) water. Or, apply saturated cloth and sprinkle on cool water. Use fans to speed evaporative cooling. A person with heatstroke should drink cool liquids, but only if they are alert. Monitor this as you would in any urgent first aid situation making sure the victim is breathing properly, comfortable, etc. (ABC’s of first aid).

Heat-related safety is serious business. But, by being aware and taking specific actions, you can make sure you and your workers beat the heat!

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