How to stay safe when working in the heat

Farm work is tough, and it doesn’t stop for the weather. Farmworkers are frequently exposed to temperature extremes and, as a result, are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses than the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmworkers die from heatstroke at a rate nearly 20 times greater than do other U.S. civilian workers. 

“Farm work is labor-intensive, so the body can overheat even in milder temperatures,” said Ryan Rogers, MPAS, PA-C, a physician assistant at Lake Regional Express Care – Lebanon. “Because it is hard to avoid working during the heat of the day, farmworkers need to learn the signs of heat-related illnesses and the easy steps they can take to prevent serious consequences.” 

The Dangers of Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat-related illnesses, which include heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps, are the body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt, making the body no longer able to cool itself efficiently. 

Many people experience heat cramps first, which usually includes heavy sweating, fatigue, thirst and muscle cramps. Heat cramps should never be ignored because they can quickly progress to heat exhaustion. Heat cramps can involve any muscle group but usually affect the calves, arms, abdomen or back. If you experience heat cramps, drink a sports beverage that contains electrolytes, and do not resume any strenuous activity for several hours. 

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke occur when your body’s temperature rises to an unsafe level.

“Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, fatigue, rapid pulse, nausea and excessive sweating,” Rogers said. “Heatstroke has similar symptoms as heat exhaustion but a significant difference is altered mental status and the presence of hot, flushed skin.” 

Heatstroke can occur even if someone has not experienced other heat-related illnesses. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the body can reach temperatures of 104 degrees or higher. Heatstroke can cause organ failure or death and should always be considered a medical emergency. 

“For heat exhaustion and heatstroke, get out of the heat and into a cool or shaded area,” Rogers said. “Remove any extra clothing. If available, use cool towels or ice packs to help lower your body temperature. Slowly drink water, but not alcoholic, caffeinated or sugary beverages. If you suspect heatstroke, call 911, and wet down the entire body. If possible, lie down and elevate your legs.”

Tips for Working in the Heat

Staying hydrated is key to preventing heat-related illnesses. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink water because thirst can be one of the first indicators of dehydration. Instead, when working out in the sun, drink one cup of water every 15 minutes. Keep a large insulated cooler of ice water nearby so you don’t have to delay your work progress. 

To keep cool and stay protected from the sun’s rays, wear light-colored and breathable fabrics, such as cotton. Long sleeves offer more protection from scratches and sun damage. Avoid anything too loose that might get caught on machinery or branches. Wide-brimmed hats offer better protection than ball caps, and a moistened bandana can help keep you cool. 

“Although it can be tempting to skip a break to get more work done, breaks in a shaded or cool environment are important to avoid overheating,” Rogers said. “Also, some people are not as acclimated to working in hot weather or simply overheat quicker than others. Ease into working outside, building your way up to a full-time day. And it is OK if you need more water or shaded breaks.”

Rose Green-Flores is a Public Relations specialist with Lake Regional Hospital. 


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