As summer heat comes on with record breaking temperatures, now is the time to consider precautions to prevent heat-related illnesses.

“People who work outside are at very high risk. Groups of concern include agricultural workers, construction workers, and those who work in the landscaping and horticultural industries” said Cheryl Skjolaas, University of Wisconsin-Extension Agricultural Safety Specialist. “Very young and elderly people are at the highest risk for heat-related problems since their bodies have a more difficult time regulating temperature.”

Skjolaas said, “Heat-related illness among workers can be deadly. This includes heat exhaustion, which can rapidly progress to heatstroke. One in five people who develop heat stroke will die, regardless of their age. Excessive heat exposure can result in impaired thinking and decision making, often leading to accidents or serious mistakes. This is especially an issue when people are operating complex and dangerous equipment such as farm machines.”

It’s difficult to give specific temperatures or humidity conditions that will “warn” people when unsafe conditions might be present. During work or recreation, our body generates heat. The heat generated by our internal metabolism compounds the risks of high temperature and high humidity. Direct sun exposure increases body temperatures as well as air temperature in localized areas. Clothing, the degree of “acclimation,” and general health and fitness are also important factors that will determine a person’s ability to cope with heat and humidity.

For people who work outside:

  • Try to plan strenuous tasks for the cooler times of the day (morning or very late afternoon.) Make sure you are monitoring outdoor conditions.
  • If you manage employees, you are responsible for their safety. Communicate specific precautions to workers in a language they understand, and make sure they clearly understand your instructions about the risks and can demonstrate safe practices.
  • Take frequent breaks and get out of the heat if possible as you rest.
  • Drink often! Dehydration is a major cause of heat-related health problems. Drink BEFORE you get thirsty. Thirst is a poor indicator of dehydration. When you use the restroom, if your urine has lots of color or is relatively dark, you most likely need to drink more. Water is the best all-around drink for most outdoor workers. Sports drinks that contain a bit of salt and electrolytes are okay to drink, but avoid sugary soda drinks and caffeine. At least eight ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes is recommended. For most healthy people, more is better.
  • Wear lightweight, light colored, loose fitting clothing. A hat will protect you from the sun, but should be loose and well-ventilated.
  • Fans will not cool the air, but they will help evaporate sweat. Sweating has a profound cooling effect if there is adequate air movement (especially when the air is dry.)
  • On hot days, eat lightly and avoid heavy, greasy foods and extra protein. Choose foods with high water content; fresh fruits and vegetables are good choices.
  • Salt tablets are never recommended unless advised by your doctor. If you are on a fluid-restricted diet because of a medical condition, you also should check with your doctor about how you can safely work in hot weather.

Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke from the American Red Cross:

Heat exhaustion: Cool, moist, pale, or flushed skin; heavy sweating; headache; nausea or vomiting; dizziness; and exhaustion. Body temperature will be near normal.

Heat stroke: Hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. Body temperature can be very high– as high as 105 degrees F. If the person was sweating from heavy work or exercise, skin may be wet; otherwise, it will feel dry.

For heat exhaustion:

  • Move the person to a cool place.
  • Have the person remove or loosen tight clothing and apply cool, moistened washcloths to the forehead, wrists, chest, and other areas of the body to help cool them down.
  • If the person is alert and conscious, have them drink a few ounces of cool fluid (water preferred) every 15 minutes. This is important, even if the person doesn’t feel thirsty.
  • Monitor their condition as they begin to feel more comfortable. If the symptoms do not subside after an hour, seek medical care or advice from a qualified health professional. If the victim has any history of chronic illness such as heart or lung problems, they should see their doctor right away.

Heat stroke is an entirely different matter and must be treated as a life-threatening emergency.

  • Get help by calling 9-1-1 immediately
  • In the meantime, get the affected person as cool as possible. Immerse the victim in cool (not ice) water or wrap them in saturated fabric and continue to apply cool liquid. Provide for as much air movement as possible to speed cooling. A cool shower is also helpful if the victim can stand
  • Similar to heat exhaustion, have the person drink cool liquids only if they are alert and fully conscious. If the person looses consciousness, vomits, or has other difficulties drinking, never force liquids
  • 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.)

Source: University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension