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  • Writer's pictureCraig Drabyk

Heat-Related Illness on the Job: Prevention, Symptoms, First Aid, and When to Seek Medical Treatment

Heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, can occur when the body is unable to cool itself properly. With summer just around the corner, it is important to learn the signs of heat stress in ourselves and others and how to prevent it. Heat-related illnesses can range from relatively mild, such as heat rash, heat cramps, and heat syncope (fainting), to more serious conditions like heat exhaustion, rhabdomyolysis, and life-threatening heat stroke.

People who work outdoors, in hot environments, and in unconditioned spaces are particularly susceptible to these ailments. At Omni Instrumentation & Electrical Services, safety is our top priority, and preventing heat-related illnesses is extremely important to us. Here is some important information that everyone should know.

The first defense against heat-related illness is rescheduling work when extremely hot weather is forecast. If this is not possible, plan the most demanding work for the coolest part of the day and gradually ramp up to avoid overexertion. Workers should hydrate before starting work and rehydrate frequently throughout the day with at least 16 oz. of cool water or sports drink per hour and take frequent breaks in shaded or cool areas.

Breathable, lightweight, light-colored clothing should be worn in extreme heat. High-tech fabrics designed to wick sweat and increase evaporation are widely available and highly effective. Sweat evaporation helps the body dissipate excessive heat, so it’s a good idea to bring a change of clothing in case yours becomes saturated. Take extra care when wearing PPE – vests, hard hats, harnesses, gloves, etc. – as they can further increase the risks of overheating.

Recognize the Symptoms of Serious Heat-related Illness

Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency that occurs when the body’s heat-regulating system fails and body temperature rises to critical levels. It is usually preceded by heat exhaustion. Symptoms can include confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, seizures, high body temperature (103° or higher), and hot, dry skin or profuse sweating. If a worker shows symptoms of heat stroke, call 911 immediately, as permanent disability or death can occur. Move the victim to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing while waiting for EMTs to arrive. Cool them down quickly with a cold water or ice bath if possible, or soak clothes or clothing with cool water. Place ice or cold compresses on the head, neck, armpits, and groin. If possible, circulate the air to speed cooling.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness or lack of coordination, irritability, thirst, heavy sweating, elevated body temperature, and decreased output of urine. If you or someone else exhibits symptoms, immediately move to a shaded or cool area. Drink fluids and encourage frequent sips. Remove unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks. Apply cold compresses or have the worker wash their head, neck, and face with cold water. If symptoms don’t improve within 30 minutes, seek medical attention.

Rhabdomyolysis, often called rhabdo, is a serious condition that occurs when muscle tissues damaged by heat exposure, physical exertion, or direct trauma release proteins and electrolytes into the blood. These substances can damage the heart and kidneys and cause permanent disability or even death.  Symptoms include severe muscle cramps, aches, or pains, abnormally dark (tea or cola-colored) urine, weakness, and inability to complete job tasks or finish an exercise routine. Should symptoms occur, stop activity immediately, drink fluids, and seek immediate medical care. 

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