With summer upon us, many Habitat for Humanity Affiliate build projects are in full swing. These build projects are labor intensive work. Long hours in high temperatures under the beating sun pose an acute risk for heat exhaustion and stroke during this time of the year.
Heat exhaustion is a condition caused by prolonged exposure to high temperatures, combined with particularly high humidity and strenuous physical activity. Continuous exposure to these conditions inhibits the body’s ability to efficiently cool itself. A body that cannot properly regulate its temperature is at risk of heavy sweating, confusion, nausea, headaches, rapid heartbeats, muscle cramps and dehydration. While heat exhaustion itself is not a life-threatening condition, it can lead to a heat stroke, which is considered life-threatening.
Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat injury that occurs when a person’s body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stroke requires emergency treatment and can quickly cause internal damage to a person’s brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. A person suffering from heat exhaustion who experiences a change in mental states may be experiencing a heat stroke. While a person experiencing heat exhaustion tends to sweat profusely, a person suffering from heat stroke will stop sweating completely and have very dry skin. The longer a heat stroke goes untreated, the worse the damage will be, including death. Because heat stroke is often preceded by heat exhaustion, the two conditions share similar risk factors.
Heat exhaustion risk factors
Age is the most common risk factor for both conditions. As the body ages, the central nervous system deteriorates, lessening the body’s ability to cope with temperature changes. During sudden and early heat waves, elderly individuals not used to sudden temperature changes should avoid strenuous activity outdoors until they have acclimated to the change.
Medications are common risk factors too—diuretics, antihistamines, beta blockers and other illicit drugs all impact the body’s ability stay hydrated, increasing the chances of experiencing heat exhaustion and potentially stroke. Fortunately, if caught early, heat exhaustion is easily treated, avoiding the possibility of heat stroke.
Preventing heat exhaustion
To avoid employees and volunteers from experiencing heat exhaustion, encourage these tips:
- Wear lightweight, light colored, loose-fitting clothing that allows the body to breath.
- Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.
- Drink plenty of water. Electrolyte rich substances like sports drinks can also prevent heat exhaustion.
If you think a person is experiencing heat exhaustion, get them out of the heat and resting in a shaded area or an air-conditioned room. The person should remove any unnecessary tight, restrictive clothing, drink cool ice water or even take a cool shower or bath.
Don’t let your Affiliate’s project be hampered by a case of heat exhaustion or, worse, stroke. Being mindful of your employees, volunteers and the weather will ensure your projects are uninterrupted all summer long.