How to Handle Worker Heat Stress

Josh McGillLabor, Weather

By Amir Rezazadeh

Heat stress happens when the body is exposed to extreme heat in a hot environment. Heat-related illnesses include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rashes. Other signs of heat stress include sweaty palms, fogged-up safety glasses and dizziness.

Agricultural workers are at risk of heat stress. Those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications may be at greater risk of heat stress. 

Heat Stress

The most serious heat-related illness is heat stroke. When a worker is exposed to very hot and humid conditions, the body is unable to control its temperature. The body’s temperature can rise rapidly to 106 degrees or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. The sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Heat stroke can result in coma or death.

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature
  • Fatal if treatment delayed
  • Hot and dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Confusion, altered mental status and slurred speech

What to do:

  • Call 911 immediately for emergency medical care.
  • Move the worker to a cooler environment and remove outer clothing.
  • Stay with the victim until emergency medical services arrive.
  • Cool the worker quickly with cold water or an ice bath.
  • Circulate the air around the worker using a fan.
  • Apply a cold wet cloth or ice on the head, neck and armpits

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses too much water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. Workers who are elderly, have high blood pressure and work in a hot environment are at higher risk of heat exhaustion.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Dizziness
  • Decreased urine output

What to do:

  • Move the victim to a cool area.
  • Call 911 or take the worker to an emergency room.
  • Stay with the worker until help arrives.
  • Remove unnecessary clothing, including socks and shoes.
  • Provide cold water for the worker to slowly sip.

Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that affect workers who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. They occur when sweating depletes the body’s salt and water levels. Low salt levels in muscles result in painful cramps. Heat exhaustion may cause heat cramps.

Signs and symptoms of heat cramps include:

  • Muscle cramps or spasms
  • Spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs

What to do:

  • Drink an electrolyte solution (sports drink).
  • Avoid salt tablets.
  • If the cramps are severe or do not subside within one hour, get medical help.

Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot and humid weather when sweat cannot evaporate. The rash may cover a large area of the skin or become infected and result in an uncomfortable condition for the worker.

Signs and symptoms of heat rash include:

  • Red cluster of pimples or small blisters
  • Irritation and itching
  • Appears on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breast and in elbow creases

What to do:

  • Move the worker to a cooler and less humid environment.
  • Keep the rash area dry.
  • Do not use ointments and creams.

In most cases, heat stress can be prevented, or the risk of developing heat stress can be reduced. Workers should follow these tips to help prevent heat stress:

  • Clothing: Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing such as cotton to allow sweat to evaporate. Clothes with light colors absorb less heat than dark colors. When working outdoors, wear a hat to keep the sun off your head and face.
  • Drinking: Drink water frequently to replace fluids lost from sweating. Avoid drinking coffee because it is a diuretic that causes increased urination.
  • Work schedule: If possible, avoid working during the warmer parts of the day. Minimize the amount of time working if the temperature humidity index is between 84 and 93.

Amir Rezazadeh is a multi-county fruit and field crops Extension agent at University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences St. Lucie County Extension office in Fort Pierce.

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