Safety Month Topic Three – Heat-Related Illness

Safety Month Topic Three – Heat-Related Illness

We’re turning up the heat for the third week of 2023’s National Safety Month by looking into heat-related illnesses and exposing how to avoid them.   

Heat is a serious danger for those who live and work in hot environments. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 43 work-related deaths due to heat exposure during 2019. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 65,000 people visit emergency rooms per year for heat-related stress—and 700 die from it.

The good news is that heat-related illness is preventable. Understanding the warning signs of these common heat-related illnesses and knowing how to keep your “cool” can be the difference between a hospital visit and returning home healthy.

Here are the three most common heat-related illnesses, ranked from the mildest (heat cramps) to the most serious (heat stoke), with tips on what to do if you’re feeling their symptoms and how to treat them.   

What are Heat Cramps?

Just like the name implies, these are painful muscle cramps. This may be a symptom of serious dehydration. They can commonly occur after intense physical activity in hot environments.  

Symptoms of Heat Cramps

  • Painful muscle cramps (typically in legs and abdomen)
  • Heavy sweating

How to Treat Heat Cramps

Gently massage cramping muscles and provide sips of water to the victim. Move the person to a cool environment (preferably in an air-conditioned, indoor space). If cramping continues for more than one hour, seek medical attention.

What is Heat Exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a more serious condition. It occurs when your body is unable to adequately cool itself down. A lack of available water and salt in the body is typically to blame for this more advanced stage of heat-related illness.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

  • Weakness
  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • Weak pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

How to Treat Heat Exhaustion

Move the victim to a cool environment. Loosen clothing and remove any unneeded articles. Give the person sips of water, being careful to not offer too much, too quickly. Provide cool, wet cloths to lower skin temperature. Offer a cool bath, if available. If the person starts vomiting, seek medical attention. Stay with the victim until symptoms fade or medical aid arrives.

What is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency and requires immediate attention. This occurs when the body is overwhelmed by excessive heat and is no longer able to regulate its own temperature.  

Symptoms of Heat Stroke

  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Hot, red, dry or damp skin
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness

How to Treat Heat Stroke

Call 911 or get the person to a hospital as quickly as possible. Heat stoke is a serious medical emergency and delaying treatment can be life threatening. Ensure the victim is moved to a cool location (preferably indoors in an air-conditioned space). Do not give the person liquids. Always stay with the person until medical aid arrives.

How to Avoid Heat-Related Illnesses at Work and Home

Whether you’re working hard on the job or at home, the steps to avoid heat-related illness remain largely the same. Read how to keep you and your team cool this summer.

Drink Water or Other Non-Sugary Liquids

Aim for at least three cups every hour of working in the heat, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid sugary sodas and energy drinks with caffeine, as these can contribute to dehydration.

Dress Appropriately

When possible, wear loose-fitting and breathable clothing. Protect your skin from the sun’s rays with lightweight and light-colored pieces. Wear a hat and sunglasses to keep your face and eyes protected. 

Take a Break!

Allow you and your crew to cool off throughout the day. Find a shady, cool area and spend a few minutes per hour in the “cool zone” to give your body a chance to recover from the physically stressful effects of heat.

Acclimatize to Hot Conditions

Give your body a chance to adjust to hot conditions by following the 20% rule. On day one of working in a hot environment, don’t work more than 20% of the time in the heat. Then, only increase the duration of time spent in the heat per day by 20%. This means that it should take an entire workweek (five days) to fully acclimate your body to working in a hot environment.

Watch Your “Wingman”

Whether you’re working in the yard with your spouse or on the job with your co-worker, watch out for those around you. If you notice anybody experiencing dizziness, slurring their speech, looking confused or appearing weak, ask them how they’re feeling and provide medical aid if necessary.

Heat-related illness can be a life-threatening situation. Make sure to stay hydrated, watch for those around you and respond quickly if you find yourself or your team experiencing signs of heat exhaustion. And if you suspect yourself or anyone on your crew is experiencing heat stroke, seek medical attention immediately.

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