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Save a worker: Know the stages of heat stress

As the mercury climbs on hot summer days, so too does the risk of heat-related illness. As a construction worker, you could drop a tool because of a sweaty palm or collapse from heat stroke while digging a trench on a 100-degree day. For your sake and the sake of your co-workers, learn what heat illness looks like and what first aid to provide.

Thousands of employees suffer annually from serious heat-related sickness and injury, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Heat stroke kills 30 Americans every year on average, according to the federal government. Unsurprisingly, more than 40 percent of these deaths happen in the construction sector where workers are outdoors for long periods facing hazardous environments.

Most people should simply take a break, drink some water and move to the shade. Others might keep working and progress from heat exhaustion to heat stroke, which can be a fatal mistake.

Part of being safe in the heat is knowing the five stages of heat-related illness:

  • Heat rash: This results in skin irritation caused by perspiration that does not evaporate. It can be seen in clusters of red bumps on neck, upper chest and folds of skin. To treat, dry the affected area and work in a colder, less humid area, if possible.
  • Heat cramps: This is serious but does not require medical assistance if the symptoms do not persist. Common signs include muscle spasms and pain, normally in the abdomen and extremities. For relief, move into the shade, drink water or a cool beverage and do not return to work for a few hours, if at all.
  • Heat exhaustion: This condition is serious and should mark the end of the victim's work day. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include: moist skin cool to the touch, sweating profusely, headache, quick heartbeat, dizziness and vomiting. Use similar treatments to the above illnesses, plus apply ice packs to the skin. If symptoms persist for an hour or more, seek expert medical help.
  • Heat stroke: This is the most severe form of heat-related illness reached when the body cannot cope under the heat any longer. The victim might appear entirely confused, fall over or have a seizure. The skin could be very sweaty, or it could be red, hot and dry as the body's temperature mechanisms fail. This is a medical emergency, and you should call 911 while you follow the treatments listed above.

Workers who are older than 65, obese, have heart problems or take medications are especially vulnerable to heat and should take extra precautions at work. Also, someone new to the job might be more susceptible - experienced construction workers might have adapted over time and their bodies might be better at regulating core temperature.

A heat-related incident can be dangerous or fatal. If you are out sick, lost wages and medical bills can lead to financial problems as well. Stay safe and enjoy the heat this summer.

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