Menu

Staying Safe in the Summer Sun: Avoiding Heat Stress and Heat-Related Illness

June 21, 2022

Marion Barnes, County Extension Agent

Working outside is a daily reality for those who make their living farming. This can mean long hours in the hot, humid summer growing season. To protect themselves, farmers should be familiar with heat stress and heat-related illnesses and take proper steps to prevent them.

What is heat stress? The human body has several mechanisms for dealing with heat stress, but its primary defense is perspiration. When perspiration dries by air, the body has a cooling effect. When conditions are such that the body cannot cool itself by sweating, several heat-induced illnesses such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and more severe heat stroke can occur.

Who is at risk? To a certain extent, everyone is at risk of heat-related illnesses if we do not protect ourselves; however, the following groups may run higher chances of developing a heat-related disorder.

  • Older individuals. According to the National Ag Safety Database, one’s ability to sweat declines with age.
  • Young children and infants
  • Individuals with certain medical conditions such as heart and circulatory issues.
  • Physically unfit individuals
  • Those who are not accustomed to working in the heat or have a low tolerance level to heat
  • Workers completing tasks in areas with limited airflow that help with the cooling process

What types of heat-related illnesses can occur?

Heat rash causes excessive perspiration during humid weather when sweat fails to evaporate from the skin and clogs pores. Common symptoms of heat rash include red, blotchy areas on the skin or small pimples or blisters. With severe cases of heat, rash infections may occur.

Heat cramps are usually the result of physical labor in a hot environment that cause the loss of body fluids via sweating resulting in an imbalance of electrolytes that upset the body’s chemical balance. Heat cramps most often affect the stomach, arms, and/or legs and can be very painful.

Heat exhaustion is a combination of excessive heat and dehydration, which occurs when the body loses fluids and salts from sweating, and blood flow to the brain and other organs decreases. Symptoms include cool, pale, clammy skin, cramps, nausea, headaches, dizziness, weakness, confusion, and unconsciousness. Untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.

Heat stroke is the most severe disorder associated with heat stress and is a medical emergency that can lead to death. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature-regulating mechanisms fail, and body temperatures rise to critical levels. Symptoms include hot, dry skin, confusion, chills, nausea, dizziness, convulsions, and unconsciousness. Heat stroke victims can become comatose in severe cases. Contact emergency medical professionals immediately if someone is experiencing any of these conditions.

Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses  

The following are guidelines to prevent heat-related illnesses when working in the heat:

  • Drink approximately 8 ounces (1 cup) of water every 15 to 30 minutes. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink water! Stay hydrated.
  • Check your prescription and over-the-counter medication labels to determine any side effects they may cause when exposed to sun and heat.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, drugs, and large amounts of sugar because they can speed up dehydration.
  • Wear light-colored, lightweight, and loose-fitting clothing.
  • Schedule short breaks to cool down. A 10-15 minute break in shaded areas as needed is effective. The higher the temperature and humidity, the more often breaks will be required.
  • Gradually adjust to working in the heat to build up your tolerance. Talk to your physician or health care provider if you have a chronic health condition to obtain any special recommendations for working in hot and humid environments.
  • If you are a farm owner or manager, educate your employees about prevention and emergence response to heat-related illnesses. Manage work activities and match them to employees’ physical condition.
  • Know heat stress first aid techniques.
  • Monitor weather conditions and be mindful of the heat and humidity indexes. Change/adjust work schedules or routines as necessary to avoid dangerous situations.

As heat and humidity increase throughout the summer, everyone should be aware of the conditions that cause heat stress, take the proper precautions necessary to prevent it, and know how to deal with its symptoms.

For more information on heat-related illnesses, check out Penn State University’s publication, Heat Illness, and Agriculture: https://extension.psu.edu/heat-illness-and-agriculture

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention website, Extreme Heat: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/index.html

For additional resources on farm safety topics, contact your local Clemson Extension Office.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, or marital or family status. It is an equal opportunity employer.