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Understanding Heat Illness

Heat illness can be severe and even fatal if not properly managed. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are four primary types of heat illness:

  1. Heat Stroke

The most severe form of heat illness, heat stroke demands immediate emergency treatment. It occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher due to prolonged exposure to hot, humid conditions or intense physical activity in the heat. Heat stroke can cause severe damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles, and may be fatal.

  1. Heat Exhaustion

This occurs when the body fails to cool down due to inadequate sweating, leading to overheating. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke.

  1. Heat Cramps

These are involuntary muscle spasms, typically in the calves, arms, abdomen, or back, caused by fluid loss through excessive sweating. Heat cramps can be a sign of heat exhaustion.

  1. Heat Rash

Also known as prickly heat, this is characterized by red, bumpy skin irritation due to blocked sweat glands. Common in children and babies, it can also affect adults, particularly in areas like the neck, armpits, chest, back, elbow creases, and groin.

Additionally, construction workers are at risk for rhabdomyolysis, a rare but serious condition caused by muscle breakdown due to intense physical exertion in hot temperatures.

Recognizing Heat Illness Symptoms

While each type of heat illness has specific symptoms, many overlap. Common symptoms include:

  • Profuse sweating or hot, dry skin
  • Intense thirst
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Weakness
  • Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms
  • Irritability

Heat stroke specifically can also cause seizures and loss of consciousness.

Preventing Heat Illness

According to OSHA, employers should have a written plan to prevent heat illness, including:

  • Daily monitoring of workers for heat illness symptoms
  • Gradual development of heat tolerance for new, temporary, and returning workers
  • Implementation of engineering controls and work practices
  • Training for supervisors and workers
  • Adaptation to heat advisories or warnings from the National Weather Service

OSHA also recommends the following tips for workers:

  • Drink at least one cup of cool water every 20 minutes; avoid caffeinated beverages.
  • Take frequent breaks in a shaded, cool area.
  • Wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, a wide-brim hat, UV-absorbent sunglasses, and sunscreen with SPF 30+.
  • Limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Monitor themselves and coworkers for signs of heat illness.

Responding to Heat Illness

Heat illness can be deadly, so quick response is crucial. Managers should call 911 immediately if anyone shows signs of abnormal thinking or behavior, slurred speech, seizures, or loss of consciousness. While waiting for emergency help, efforts should be made to cool the person using water or ice.

For symptoms like headache, nausea, weakness, dizziness, heavy sweating (or hot, dry skin), elevated body temperature, extreme thirst, or decreased urine output:

  • Move the worker to a cooler area
  • Provide water to drink
  • Remove unnecessary clothing
  • Cool with water, ice, or a fan

Never leave a worker experiencing heat illness symptoms alone, and always call for professional medical care if unsure about the severity of their condition.

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