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Heat Exhaustion & Heat Stroke: Protecting Your Operation

Originally written by Tracey Erickson, former SDSU Extension Dairy Field Specialist. 

For those whose livelihood depends upon working outdoors or in less than favorable conditions, the coming weeks look to be quite difficult with higher than normal temperatures and humidity predicted. For example, cows still need to be milked and fed, barns are not air conditioned, even though there is emphasis on cow comfort through ventilation and cooling efforts for cows, we sometimes get lax on also protecting ourselves and employees from the effects of the heat. The same goes for those working outdoors, not under roof, maybe stacking hay, de-tasseling corn, construction, youth at livestock or horse shows, horticulture producers picking produce for sale, etc. Personal protection and prevention efforts will be vital as people perform these tasks to prevent heat exhaustion or stroke.

People that are at higher risk for heat stroke or exhaustion include the elderly, infants and children (age 0-4), overweight, people who are ill or on certain medications.

Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke

According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), “heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down.” Heat stroke can cause death or serious complications such as damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles if emergency treatment is not provided.

The CDC defines heat exhaustion as “a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids.”

Heat Stroke Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of heat stroke, along with getting emergency medical help will be critical in deterring permanent damage or death for people in this situation. Please note the following symptoms for heat stroke according to the CDC and Mayo Clinic:

  • A high body temperature (above 103°F).
  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating). The one exception is if heat stroke has been brought on by exercising then the skin may feel moist.
  • Rapid, strong pulse.
  • Throbbing headache.
  • Dizziness.
  • Nausea.
  • Confusion.
  • Unconsciousness.

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms

Heat exhaustion will have similar symptoms and should also be taken seriously as it may worsen and lead to heat stroke if not treated. Medical attention should be sought if symptoms worsen or last for more than an hour. Symptoms are as follows:

  • Heavy sweating.
  • Paleness.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Tiredness.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Fainting.

Safety Considerations

People are vital to many operations and should be treated as an asset. This means we may have to provide for extra breaks to cool down during extreme heat, provide extra fans, shade, access to water and sports drinks, and sun block for people. We will want to encourage wearing light colored and light weight, loose-fitting clothing (caution should be used if working around PTO’s or equipment) along with some type of light head covering.

So if you or someone you work with is experiencing heat-related illness what can you do? First, if symptoms are suggestive of a heat stroke you should seek medical attention immediately. If you are experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat cramping the following is suggested:

  • Seek shade or air-conditioning if possible.
  • Cool off with damp sheets and a fan. The fan blown onto the cool, wet sheet will help expedite the cooling.
  • Take a cool shower or bath or take a dip in a lake or pool if available to help bring the body temperature down.
  • Rehydrate. Not only should you be drinking plenty of water, approximately every 15 minutes, but you may also need to replace salt and minerals which have been excreted during sweating. This can be done by drinking some sports drinks. However, if you have a medical condition that limits salt or fluid intake make sure to consult with your doctor on recommendations for intakes in hot weather.
  • Do not drink sugary drinks (such as soda, Kool-aid, or some fruit drinks) or alcoholic beverages to rehydrate. These drinks can actually interfere with your body’s ability to control your temperature.

Lastly, it is important to pace yourself, especially if you are not accustomed to working in heat. It may take several weeks for a person’s body to adjust to working in a hot environment. Finally, it is important to work in pairs during the heat, so that emergency care can be administered if necessary and symptoms communicated. Lastly, stay cool and hydrated!