Extended exposure to hot, humid environments can overwhelm the body’s ability to cool itself down. When this happens, true, life-threatening implications can result without immediate detection and action. Heat related injuries and illnesses typically come in the following succession: The first signal is most often heat cramps, where the body is telling you that you are beginning to over-extend your capabilities of a healthy level of activity that is mostly accompanied by a moderate level of sweating. Sweating is the most obvious method to gauge your body’s level of tolerance to the elements and is the body’s way of cooling itself and sending a message to you to tone down activity. Those who are not accustomed to outdoor activity may experience abdominal cramping in relatively short periods of time. If ignored during the heat cramp stage, the body will then enter the second stage of heat exhaustion. This is most evident by the absence of sweat, thirst, pale appearance, headache, nausea, vomiting and may also be accompanied by involuntary twitching of the muscles. It is critically important to recognize the signs your body is sending you and take steps to minimize your exposure.
If heat exhaustion signals are ignored, the body will then begin to shut itself down during the final stage of heat stroke. Heat stroke is often fatal if medical assistance is not immediately available. When heat stroke occurs it is critically important to aggressively cool the victim by any means available to you. This can include spraying the victim with water and fanning by any means available. Heat stroke is most often accompanied by an altered mental status, hot, red and dry skin. If ice packs are available, place on the back of the neck, the armpits and/or the groin. If the victim becomes unconscious, place them in the recovery position and cover them with cool, wet compresses.
In all stages of a heat-related illness, your first course of action should be to move the victim out of the heat and to a cooler environment. On the jobsite, this can be to any air conditioned location, including the jobsite office, trailer or to a nearby vehicle. Often, limiting exposure to hot environments, drinking plenty of fluids (water or electrolyte replenishing) and simply carrying on routine conversations with those exposed to hot environments for extended durations to check for alertness can thwart a true life threatening emergency. Never ignore what your body is trying to tell you.