With the warmest of summer days upon us, and with warmer-than-normal temps across the Upper Midwest (not to mention what’s happening in Russia), corn and soybean farmers need to remember that plants aren’t the only things affected by the heat; it has an effect on people, too.

Heat stress can turn into a heat stroke and can be fatal. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website has a wealth of information about what heat stress can do to our bodies.

For instance, heat stress includes heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps or heat rashes. Folk at risk include outdoor workers and workers in hot environments such as firefighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, factory workers and others.

Another interesting fact: “Workers at greater risk of heat stress include those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart disease or high blood pressure or take medications that may be affected by extreme heat.”

That age factor caught my attention. Most farmers are pushing 60; some are not in as good a physical condition as they should be.

The best course of action, naturally, is prevention. Farmers might want to train employees about the dangers of heat stress and maybe even post symptoms they should be aware of.

NIOSH says heat stroke is the most serious heat-related disorder. “It occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: the body's temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106° F or higher within 10-15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.”

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Hot, dry skin (no sweating)
  • Hallucinations
  • Chills
  • Throbbing headache
  • High body temperature
  • Confusion/dizziness
  • Slurred speech

Problem is, if someone is working alone, these symptoms can slip up on him before he realizes he’s in trouble. It’s best to make certain someone knows where you’re working and stay in touch with home base every hour or so, maybe more often in extreme heat. And keep drinking water. Start before you go to the field to make certain you’re hydrated.

First aid procedures for heat stroke, according to NIOSH include:

  • Call 911 and notify a supervisor, farm manager, or spouse.
  • Move the sick worker to a cool shaded area.
  • Cool the worker by soaking their clothes with water; spraying, sponging, or showering them with water or fanning their body.

Farmers and ranchers also may suffer from heat exhaustion, “the body's response to excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. Workers most prone to heat exhaustion are elderly, have high blood pressure and work in a hot environment,” according to NIOSH.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Dizziness, confusion
  • Nausea
  • Clammy, moist skin
  • Pale or flushed complexion
  • Muscle cramps
  • Slightly elevated body temperature
  • Fast and shallow breathing

First aid for heat exhaustion includes:

  • Rest in a cool, shaded or air-conditioned area.
  • Drink plenty of water or other cool, nonalcoholic beverages.
  • Take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath.

Then there’s heat syncope, “a fainting (syncope) episode or dizziness that usually occurs with prolonged standing or sudden rising from a sitting or lying position. Factors that may contribute to heat syncope include dehydration and lack of acclimatization.”

Symptoms include: Light-headedness, dizziness, fainting. First aid includes: Sit or lie down in a cool place when symptoms begin; slowly drink water, clear juice or a sports beverage.

Other heat-related illnesses include heat cramps and heat rash.

Heat cramps may affect workers who sweat a lot during strenuous activity, which depletes salt and moisture levels. Low salt levels in muscles cause painful cramps. Heat cramps may be a symptom of heat exhaustion, too. Symptoms include muscle pain or spasms usually in the abdomen, arms or legs.

Workers with heat cramps should stop activity, sit in a cool place and drink clear juice or a sports beverage. They should not return to strenuous work for several hours after the cramps subside. Further exertion may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Also, if you or a worker have a heart problem, are on a low-sodium diet or if the cramps do not subside within an hour, NIOSH recommends seeking medical attention.

Heat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather, looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters and is more likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases.

Responses should include: working in cooler, less humid environments when possible, keeping the affected area dry and using dusting powder.

NIOSH recommends that employers consider the following:

  • Schedule maintenance and repair jobs in hot areas during cooler months.
  • Schedule hot jobs for the cooler part of the day.
  • Acclimate workers by exposing them for progressively longer periods to hot work environments.
  • Reduce the physical demands of workers.
  • Use relief workers or assign extra workers for physically demanding jobs.
  • Provide cool water or liquids to workers but avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
  • Provide rest periods with water breaks.
  • Provide cool areas for use during break periods.
  • Monitor workers who are at risk of heat stress.
  • Provide heat stress training that includes information about worker risk, prevention and symptoms.

For more information, check http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/.