Causing numerous fatalities each year, high heat and humidity are a dangerous combination and one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States. Fortunately, heat–related deaths are preventable. Executive Director for UT Health Austin’s WorkLife Occupational Health, Walk-In, and Travel Clinic Edward Bernacki, MD, MPH, discusses what you can do to stay safe throughout Texas summers.
As an occupational health specialist, what advice do you give to people to acclimate to the hot weather?
Heat-related workers include construction workers, delivery drivers, roofers, groundskeepers, and more. These jobs can be brutal, taking a toll on the body when the heat is high. Dr. Bernacki advises individuals to take two weeks to acclimate to the heat in the summer time. It gives your body time to help your sweat rate go up and you the ability to cool down your body temperature. However, for those of us who only venture out occasionally (e.g., the elderly, individuals with large body mass, and kids), he advises us to take the same precautions. The elderly are most vulnerable since they don’t have the same capacity as adults to cool their bodies as quickly. Kids also have a reduced ability to dissipate heat, and they often forget to hydrate while playing. Check on children who play outside every 20-30 minutes and make sure they hydrate with water and, of course, don’t forget the sunscreen.
Is there anything you can do to speed up the two-week acclimatization period?
Not really, it’s the standard amount of time most people need to get used to working in the heat. Dr. Bernacki’s says sports teams have the right idea. For instance, football players don’t dress in full pads on day one - they work up slowly, starting with a helmet, light shirt, and shorts and add layers and graduated training practices until they can practice in full gear for prolonged periods of time.
Get ready for the hot weather with these tips:
- Dress lightly for the weather. Football teams don’t begin practices with full pads on day one - they build up to full pads over a week or two. You can do the same. Take it slowly when you are exposing yourself for extended periods in the heat.
- Take frequent water breaks. Drink 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes - no less, no more, because you can over-hydrate. Thirst is the best indicator of your need for water.
- Limit work or play during the hottest part of the day. Instead, plan activities in the morning or late afternoon.
- If you are working in the heat, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have developed a Heat App to help people understand the risk of working in the heat, It also shares tips on how to stay safe in the summer heat. You can download it here for Apple and Android: OSHA/NIOSH Heat App.
How dangerous is the humidity factor?
Humidity is as important as high temperatures when planning outdoor activities or work. Yes, humidity can mean the difference in how quickly someone can recover from heat exposure. When the relative humidity is 75% or higher, you cannot count on sweating to cool your body. High humid conditions and heat of close to 100 degrees make it very difficult to cool a person down. If possible, take an affected person indoors into air conditioning or into an area with circulating air to begin the cool down process. In less humid conditions, it may be easier to cool someone down with cool compresses, water, or by getting them to rest in a cool, shady location.
When should someone seek medical attention?
Bernacki says a good rule of thumb is that if someone loses consciousness or gets very dizzy whether they are cold, clammy, or even dry, it’s best to call 911. He says, “It’s better to err on the side of safety, because it is really hard to make the diagnosis and there are other conditions that may cause the dizziness as well.”