Heat Illness – The Guide To Identify & Treat! by Brad McKown

Heat Illness – The Guide To Identify & Treat!

Heat Illness header picture

It seems like every year, the summer days get hotter sooner and that they stay hotter longer as well.  In Florida, this has been especially true with days climbing into the upper 90’s along with high humidity.  Combine this hot, humid environment with physical activity and lack of preparation and you could be at risk of heat related illness.

Did you know that an increase in body temperature of just a few degrees could affect your mental functioning?  An increase of a few more degrees can result in serious injury or death.  Heat can also be an underlying factor in a workplace accident, a fall or a heart attack.

Heat stress is a buildup of body heat.  It can be generated either internally (by muscle use) or externally (by the environment) and it affects your body’s natural cooling system.  Without proper precautions, this heat buildup can develop into heat exhaustion or heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition.

When it comes to heat illness, prevention and awareness are key.  Here are a few easy to follow tips for workers:

  • If you are not accustomed or acclimated to working in the heat, don’t expect to be able to tolerate the heat right away. It can take up to two weeks for a person to build up a tolerance for working in hot conditions.
  • Adapt your work and pace to the temperature and how you feel. Take breaks as necessary.  A simple but potentially life-saving practice is taking a break to cool off in the shade.  This will help prevent your body from overheating.  Try and take your breaks in an air conditioned building or vehicle.  If you don’t have a shady or cool place nearby, reduce your physical effort.
  • Keep cool. Stay out of the sun as much as possible.  If your job includes some physically demanding tasks, try and save those for the early morning or late afternoon hours when the sun is less intense.
  • Wear light weight clothing if possible and remember that the risk of heat illness can be greater if you wear certain types of personal protective equipment. If necessary, consider wearing a cooling vest to help keep your body temperature down.
  • Stay hydrated. This is essential.  As a general guideline, to avoid becoming dehydrated, it is important to drink plenty of fluids, especially water even if you don’t feel thirsty.  This is particularly true on days when temperatures reach 90°F or higher.  The suggested amount is around 1 cup of water every 15 minutes.  Depending upon your physical activity and heat exposure during hot weather, it’s a good idea to drink more water.  Persons who have medical conditions that require a fluid restrictive diet or who have a problem with fluid retention should consult a physician before increasing their consumption of fluids.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine and drugs. The effects of heat illness can be worse if you ingest drugs, alcohol or caffeine.  If you are on medication, read the label or talk with your doctor to understand how it might cause your body to react to the sun and heat.
  • Use a sunscreen with a protection factor of SPF 15 or more.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by using a hat, an umbrella or a tarp to provide shade.
  • Eat small meals and eat more often. Avoid foods high in protein as these can increase your metabolic heat.
  • Know the signs/stages of heat illness (see below) and monitor yourself and your co-workers. If you or anyone is showing signs of heat illness, stop activity, and find a cool place.

Heat illness usually comes in stages.

  1. Heat Cramps
  2. Heat Exhaustion
  3. Heat Stroke

Signs of Heat Cramps include:

  • Cramps in muscles

Signs of Heat Exhaustion include:

  • Cool, moist, pale skin (the skin may be red right after physical activity, and a rash may develop)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness and weakness or exhaustion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • The skin may or may not feel hot
  • Change in mood such as irritability or confusion.

Signs of Heat Stroke include:

  • Vomiting
  • Decreased alertness level or complete loss of consciousness
  • High body temperature (sometimes as high as 105 degrees F
  • Skin may still be moist or the victim may stop sweating and the skin may be red, hot and dry
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Seizures or convulsions

You should always use the buddy system to monitor one another

What to do for heat illness:

Heat Cramps

  • Have the person stop activity and rest in a cooler place in a comfortable position.
  • If they are fully awake and alert, have the person drink small amounts of cool water or a commercial sports drink (approximately ½ cup every fifteen minutes.) Do not let them drink too quickly.
  • Gently stretch the cramped muscle and hold the stretch for about 20 seconds then gently massage the muscle.
  • Repeat these steps as necessary
  • If the victim has no other signs of heat-related illness, the person may resume activity after the cramps stop.

Heat Exhaustion

  • Get the person to a cooler place and have them rest in a comfortable position.
  • If the person is fully awake and alert, give a ½ glass of cool water or sports drink every 15 minutes. Do not let them drink too quickly.
  • Don’t give liquids with alcohol or caffeine in them as they can make conditions worse.
  • Remove or loosen tight clothing and apply cool, wet cloths such as towels or wet sheets.
  • Seek medical care (call 9-1-1) or the local emergency number if the person refuses water, vomits or loses consciousness.

Heat Stroke

  • Heat stroke is a life-threatening situation! Help is needed quickly.  Call 9-1-1 or the local EMS number.
  • Move the person to a cooler place.
  • Quickly cool the body.
  • Remove the person’s unnecessary clothing
  • Fan the person while wetting the skin with water
  • If you have ice packs or cold packs, wrap them in a cloth and place them on each of the victim’s wrists and ankles, in the armpits and on the neck to cool the large blood vessels.
  • Do not use rubbing alcohol as it closes the skins pores and prevents heat loss.
  • Watch for signs of breathing problems and keep the victim’s airway clear.
  • Keep the person lying down till EMS arrives.

Heat illness is a serious but easily preventable health risk if you follow these basic rules.  Always remember to watch out for one-another.

Brad has been in the safety management field since the early 1990’s. Brad has a BS degree in Occupational Safety and Health Engineering and holds an Associate Safety and Health Manager designation from the Institute for Safety and Health Management. Brad’s experience includes Occupational Safety Program Design and Implementation, Emergency/Disaster Planning and Response, Workers’ Compensation/Injury Investigation, Safety Training and Workplace Auditing. He is also a Certified First Aid/CPR/AED instructor and OSHA Outreach Trainer.
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