I hate to admit it, but I tune out a bit when I hear that the elderly, very young, and otherwise vulnerable among us are most at risk for something. I may not identify myself among that list, but researching heat-related illnesses has me sipping coconut water and thinking about the whole thing differently.
Simple measures are remarkably effective in ending heat-related illnesses and deaths, which means one of the worst risk factors of all is not taking warning signs seriously. And that quality is one I recognize in myself and nearly everyone I know. We like to think of ourselves as hardworking, tough, and resilient.
I’m sure Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old college lineman who recently died after an organized team workout, thought the same thing. The really heartbreaking part about it is that McNair’s death was 100% preventable. This example and others like it show that even the young and strong are at risk. The same article lists other athlete deaths, including one on a day the high temp reached only 86 degrees.
How outdoor workers can stay safe in extreme heat
- Why should you take heat illness seriously? This isn’t about temporary discomfort. Without appropriate treatment, heatstroke can cause permanent brain damage, along with kidney, muscle, and heart issues.
- Signs: According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of heatstroke include body temperature at or above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, altered mental state (including confusion, agitation, and slurred speech), nausea/vomiting, muscle cramps, dizziness, flushed skin, headache, racing heart rate, or rapid, shallow, breathing.
- Water, rest, and shade: In addition to drinking plenty of water and taking breaks in the shade, some preventative measures include being aware of risk factors. Consuming alcohol, and even caffeine, sugar, and nicotine can increase your risk for problems. Consider setting alarms to remind you to drink water and/or take breaks. Should preventative measures fail and you recognize early signs of heat illness, move to a cooler location, rest, and slowly drink a cool beverage. Seek medical attention immediately if you do not feel better. If you think you may be suffering from heatstroke, call 911. It really is that serious.
Worker safety and advocating for yourself
- Ask for the time and space care for your health: It’s easy to get into a project and forget about the time or think you can endure a little discomfort to get the job done. Often, work cultures encourage pushing our physical limits, but your body knows what it needs. Do not ignore it and don’t be afraid to ask for a break.
- Know your rights: You have the right to a safe workplace. OSHA takes heat related working conditions very seriously and your workplace should, too. Check out OSHA’s guidelines on Occupational Heat Exposure. If your employer doesn’t take your health and safety concerns seriously, you may also file a complaint and request an inspection.
August is historically one of the hottest months in much of the U.S.. People who work outdoors need to take extra steps to protect themselves in extreme weather. Ignoring warning signs isn’t worth risking your health. Just ask Jordan McNair’s family and teammates.