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How the Heat Got Me Down

I’ve attended many field days in my years working in agriculture, but one stands out.

I’d traveled from North Carolina to attend a forage field day in Virginia, an event held one hot summer afternoon. I was looking forward to learning about managing forages for feeding livestock and making hay.

After checking in at the registration tent, I grabbed a bottle of water from one of the event’s coolers. I drank some while waiting to go to the first station, which was down a gravel road.  

I still had the same bottle when I arrived with my group at the first station. I don’t remember what the speaker was talking about. What I do remember is starting to feel dizzy and out of sorts. I finished off my bottle of water, then looked around for more. Not seeing any, I decided to walk back down the road to the registration tent.

I didn’t make it to the tent under my own power. As I was walking down the road, I passed out. I was far enough away from the group that no one could have seen me. Luckily for me, the Extension agent in charge of the event happened to be driving by and saw me fall. I probably scared a few years off her intern, who was riding in the truck. They stopped and helped me up. I’m not sure if I came to on my own, or if they had to roust me. I don’t remember anything after leaving the group.

They drove me to the registration tent, where I sat in the shade and drank two bottles of water. Once I felt better, I got in my car and drove away. I was embarrassed I’d passed out and didn’t want to go back to the group and risk them saying anything to me. I didn’t want them to know I couldn’t hang in the heat.  

At the time, I just thought I’d gotten too hot and was suffering from heat exhaustion. I didn’t realize I’d experienced a heat stroke and could have suffered organ damage or even died.

Southern summers are known for their high temperatures and humidity and bright summer sun. These conditions set the perfect stage for heat exhaustion or stroke. Each person is affected differently, and one person may not show any symptoms while another may have the classic signs.

What are the signs to look for? Someone suffering from heat exhaustion may be less alert or appear confused. They may not seem to be thinking clearly or be irritable. A person may get a headache, dizzy, thirsty, nauseated, or may vomit. They may be weak and sweaty or stop sweating.  

So who is at risk? The truth is, anyone is, but there are some conditions that put people at higher risk. People who are overweight, pregnant, or have diabetes, kidney, or heart problems could be more susceptible to heat exhaustion or stroke. Someone who isn’t used to working in the heat needs time to get their body adjusted to the hot temperatures. This was me that day in Virginia. I worked outside some, but not all day, every day, and not usually in the hottest part of the day.  

My Farmer works outside every day, so his body has time to adjust to the heat.  When I go over to help, I can tell after about 20 minutes that my body isn’t used to the heat.

You don’t have to be in agriculture to be at risk.  As I was writing this, the local news was broadcasting a heat advisory. The National Weather Service is also posting heat advisories and safety tips, inlcuding ways to keep kids safe.

The good news is that heat exhaustion and stroke are preventable. Even if you aren’t thirsty, you need to drink plenty of water. According to Safety Toolbox Topics, if you’re working in the heat you need to drink 16 ounces of water before starting work and 5 to 7 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes.

Taking regular breaks in the shade allows your body to cool off. Avoid drinking caffeine or other beverages that dehydrate, not rehydrate, your body.  

If possible, adjust the workday so you aren’t outside after lunch. Now, I realize this is almost impossible in farming, but there may be ways to adjust. For example, when harvesting sweet potatoes, our workers often start at daybreak and quit at lunchtime so they aren’t working during the hottest part of the day.  When I was an Extension agent, I often did my fieldwork before 9 a.m. to avoid the heat.

Workers need to be trained to recognize the signs, not only for their safety but so they know what to do if a fellow worker shows symptoms. The U.S. Department of Labor has training materials, including a “Heat Illness Training Guide” that can be used in on-farm trainings.

I learned the hard way how heat could affect me. I was lucky and walked away.  Truthfully, I’m still a little embarrassed by it, but I have to put aside the fear that people will accuse me of being “soft.” I work in agriculture, but I’m inside most of the time, so my body isn’t used to the heat. This isn’t a sign of weakness. If passing out on the side of a gravel road taught me anything, it’s to respect the heat.