Heat stress happens when your body has excess heat it can’t get rid of. Heat strain is how your body responds to the excess heat. And everyone is at risk when the temperatures climb.

The trend in recent years has been longer, hotter summers – so how do you protect yourself and your farmworkers? Talking about “Mitigating Heat Stress and Increasing Productivity” at the most recent Great Lakes Expo were Matt Solberg, BSc, and Bethany Boggess Alcauter, Ph.D., with the National Center for Farmworkers Health (NCFH).

Heat sickness often starts with heat rash and cramps, and when that happens, farm laborers should rest in the shade and drink water. It’s more severe if you’re dizzy, are nauseated or are vomiting, have a lack of urination and/or extreme thirst.

“Nobody wants to go to the doctor for this; they think it’s not a big deal, but it can be if left untreated,” Alcauter said. “It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”

The sickness can become an emergency when the affected person shows confusion and altered behavior, has slurred speech, loses consciousness, has a high body temperature, is sweating profusely or has stopped sweating and their skin is dry and hot. It can look like being drunk. In these instances, cool the person as quickly as you can while awaiting medical assistance.

It was noted that from 2011 – 2016, the median heat index of workplace heat fatalities was 91º F – but fatalities occurred as low as 83º. The heat index was under 91º in almost half of those fatalities. Alcauter added that in Washington State, 25% of heat-related non-fatal illnesses occurred when the heat index was under 90º.

The risk factors for heat illness number three: the worker, the work and the weather. No matter where you work, remember that direct sunlight adds 15º to the air temperature.

Another sobering statistic was that agriculture, forestry and fishing workers are 35 times more likely to die from heat than other workers. Men are 32 times more likely to die from heat than women. Age is not a significant risk factor, as young men can fall ill as well. The largest percentage of heat-related fatalities – 34% – occur during July. Most workers fall ill between noon and 6 p.m.

And 71% of workers who die from heat exposure die on the day they get sick. “These are fast-moving emergencies,” Alcauter warned.

Dehydration is a major problem too. It can cause permanent kidney damage and rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo), which presents with dark urine, muscle pain and fatigue.

Alcauter outlined the following hydration tips: Drink at least half a liter of water before starting work. Drink around one liter per hour, but that will depend on the worker, the work and the climate. Drink watered down Gatorade (two parts water, one part Gatorade) or make homemade Gatorade (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt plus one tablespoon sugar, stirred into one liter of water).

One big hurdle to overcome when addressing heat stress is the “tough farmer” mindset. “There’s a stigmatization of heat-related illnesses,” Solberg said. To combat that, create a culture where they can come forward and not be retaliated against or made fun of. And don’t leave workers alone – have some sort of buddy system.

“Remember that even if you don’t have any risk factors you can still get sick from the heat,” he continued. “Supervisors can require everyone to take breaks and drink fluids at periodic intervals so that no one ‘looks weak’ for taking a break. Have a zero tolerance policy for people making fun of others for reporting symptoms or asking to take a break … Workers need to know they will not face retaliation or lost wages for seeking medical care.”

Important prevention measures include water and electrolytes (not energy drinks) that are easy to access, as well as rest areas and shaded spots that are easy to access. Make sure that all levels of workers are trained on recognizing and responding to heat-related illnesses (office staff, foremen, supervisors and farmworkers). Also be mindful that you may need to increase prevention activities if workers are working extended hours due to labor shortages.

There have been a few studies looking at the impact of prevention measures on worker productivity, including one with Central American sugar cane cutters. The researchers gave workers three-liter Camelbacks, set up shade tents, implemented frequent rest breaks (resting 25% of the workday) and provided workers with improved tools. The results showed that the symptoms of heat stress decreased, especially serious ones like dizziness and increased urine output. Water intake increased by 25%. Most notably, workers went from harvesting about five tons to seven tons of sugar cane per day per worker post-intervention.

“A few more studies are under way now, mostly showing similar or slightly improved productivity,” Alcauter added.

Some good resources for heat stress training include the Susan Harwood Training Program (at osha.gov/harwoodgrants/grantmaterials/fy2018/sh-05032-sh8) and the NIOSH-funded FRESCO education program for agricultural workers (at ncfh.org/store/p4/Project_FRESCO.html).

NCFH staff can also provide trainings on heat stress recognition and prevention in English, Spanish and Latin American indigenous languages (via interpreters) or connect you with local trainers.

by Courtney Llewellyn