Agricultural workers are especially vulnerable to the hazards of heat and sun exposure. For instance, crop workers are 20 times more likely to die of heat stroke than all other U.S. workers, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These hot weather safety tips can help prevent heat related problems.
Heat illness symptoms and treatment
When our bodies become overheated, less blood goes to the active muscles, brain and other organs. This causes us to become weak, tire more quickly and be less alert, which is a particularly dangerous situation when operating farm equipment.
Known as heat illness or heat stress, this condition has three main phases.
The trouble begins when you aren't taking in enough water. Fatigue, thirst, dry mouth and sapped energy are signs of dehydration, which can also lead to cramping in the legs and abdomen.
To treat dehydration or heat cramps:
- Move out of the sun to a cool, comfortable place.
- Drink plenty of cool fluids, such as water, clear juices or sports beverages.
- Remove layers of clothing and bulky equipment.
- Place cool, wet cloths on the back of the neck and overheated skin.
- Stretch gently to help relieve tight muscles.
- Rest for a few hours after cramps subside.
2. Heat exhaustion
A more serious stage of heat stress, heat exhaustion occurs when your body loses a lot of water and salt. Symptoms include excessive sweating, extreme fatigue, clammy skin, dizziness or confusion, nausea, and fast, shallow breathing.
To treat heat exhaustion, follow the treatment for dehydration, then:
- Stay out of the heat and sun for the rest of the day.
- Take a cool shower or bath.
- Make sure someone is around to watch you, in case your condition gets worse.
- If symptoms persist, or fluids cannot be taken in, call or see a doctor as soon as possible.
3. Heat stroke
The most dangerous heat illness, heat stroke signals that your body can’t regulate its temperature. Internal temps rise rapidly and your body is unable to cool down. Watch for hot, dry skin or profuse sweating, chills, throbbing headache, poor coordination, slurred speech, vomiting, hallucinations, fainting or collapse.
In the case of heat stroke:
- Seek medical attention immediately. Heat stroke can cause permanent disability or death.
- Cool down by spraying, sponging or showering with water.
Preventing hot weather health problems
To reduce the odds of someone on your team suffering from a heat-related illness, try these essential heat safety tips from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Carle Center for Rural Health and Farm Safety:
- Acclimate to heat slowly over five to seven days. For new workers, increase the amount of time in the heat by 20% per day. If you’re already used to hot conditions, you can increase your exposure more quickly. But if you’re away from the heat for four days or more, you’ll need to build up your tolerance again.
- Drink lots of water before, during and after work. OSHA recommends four cups of water per hour. Drink water every 15 minutes, even if you don’t feel thirsty. And avoid sweetened or caffeinated beverages.
- Adjust the timing of certain activities, if possible. Cut back exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Avoid confined spaces during the hottest hours. Consider putting hay in the barn the morning after it’s been baled, or later in the evening when temperatures cool off.
- Take breaks in the shade or a cool environment. Taking five-minute breathers as needed not only cuts down on heat stress, but also makes everyone more productive. Set up simple tents in fields and other unsheltered areas to create needed shade.
- Use machinery with cabs or shades, but don’t skip breaks. Farm equipment generates a lot of heat, too.
For more hot weather safety tips and information about heat illness treatment and prevention, see OSHA's "Water. Rest. Shade." campaign.