Heat injuries send thousands of workers to the emergency room every year, and kill dozens in the process. Yet, every one of these injuries and deaths are preventable with the right safety processes and equipment in place.
The first step to heat injury prevention, though, is knowing what heat stroke looks like. Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat illness and can be fatal if not treated. Even if treated, heat stroke can result in permanent complications, so precautions are a must.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke?
Heat injuries progress from less severe to more severe quickly, and heat stroke is at the severe end of this progression. What begins as heat exhaustion – a non-emergency that resolves completely with treatment – progresses to heat stroke if the worker isn’t removed from hazardous conditions.
When heat stroke strikes, it presents with the following symptoms:
- Elevated body temperature (can reach as high as 106 degrees Fahrenheit or above)
- Severe confusion or altered mental state
- Excessive sweating or a complete lack of it
- Ataxia or loss of balance
- Elevated or reduced blood pressure
- Elevated heart rate
- Loss of consciousness
Heat stroke is always a medical emergency and therefore requires emergency treatment to manage. Without treatment, heat stroke can be fatal, and delayed treatment can result in significant permanent injury, including traumatic brain injury.
Ideally, heat stroke is stopped before it emerges, when less severe forms of heat illness are present. Heat exhaustion, for example, presents with some of the same symptoms as heat stroke, but without the loss of consciousness or confusion that signals heat stroke. If workers and safety personnel are alert to these signs, then the person suffering from heat exhaustion can be removed and allowed to recover without an emergency response.
What is the Recommended Response if Heat Stroke is Suspected?
If heat stroke does emerge, an immediate response is required. In many cases, there’s only a short window of time to bring the person’s body temperature back into safe ranges, or the risk of permanent injury goes up. This could be as brief as 30 minutes, so time is of the essence.
The goal is to bring the patient’s body temperature down as quickly as possible. First, call 911 and ensure emergency personnel are enroute as soon as possible.
If waiting for emergency responders to arrive, measures must be taken to reduce the patient’s body temperature. The best way to do this is to immerse the patient in cold water. If that’s not possible, the patient’s clothing should be removed and cool water applied their skin. This can be done by soaking cloths in cold water and placing them on the afflicted person. The worker should be removed to a cool, shaded place for this, and ideally in an area with circulating air. Target the neck, armpits and groin when placing cloths or ice packs, as this is where heat tends to concentrate. Remain with the patient until emergency personnel arrive.
Heat Stroke is a Medical Emergency, so Organizations Need a Heat Safety Plan in Place
Given the potentially fatal nature of heat illnesses, many organizations opt to put together a heat-specific safety plan in place for their worksites. Such a plan typically includes the following:
- The names and contact information of the people responsible for enforcing the plan
- The name, address and contact information of a nearby emergency medical facility
- The location and nature of any heat-related hazards on the job site
- An action plan if a heat-related emergency occurs
- The location of any onsite resources intended for treating heat illnesses
- The preventative measures in place for heat-related emergencies
The point of this plan is to articulate what the company does to prevent heat illnesses. This may include checking worker vitals regularly, switching to an alternative work schedule or rotation, setting up hydration and cooling stations, or providing personnel with temperature-monitoring tools so they can respond when heat hazards are at their worst.
Monitoring the Temperature is Critical for Field Workers and Can Raise Awareness of Heat Stroke
100 percent of heat injuries can be prevented, and it’s easier to prevent those injuries if your field personnel know what conditions they’re facing. The problem is, the temperature can climb from hot to dangerously hot without anyone noticing, unless they’re monitoring temperature data.
This information is clearly most important for field employees where they work. That being the case, it makes sense to arm those employees with temperature-taking tools.
An inexpensive, easy-to-use and lightweight option are liquid crystal thermometers embedded in a twic card or something similar. Liquid crystal thermometers are reliable within a couple of degrees and can provide an instant check on ambient temperature.