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Avoid heat-related illness while working outside

Landscaping and gardening is great physical exercise and studies show it's good for emotional well-being, but University of Illinois Extension educator Chris Enroth says those working outside must remain aware of the dangers associated with heat stress on our bodies.

"When I was working as a landscaper, we had to sod a large backyard during a day when the temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit", Enroth says. "We were hustling to get the sod down quickly so it wouldn't burn up in the hot sun. About midway through the day, I started feeling nauseated, dizzy, and I stopped sweating. I was disoriented and could no longer push my wheelbarrow. That's when I knew I was suffering from severe heat exhaustion, perhaps even heat stroke."

Hard work and warm weather can lead to dangerous health conditions. As our muscles work, they generate heat. The warmer the air temperature is, the harder our body has to work to stay at a normal temperature. When our bodies can't keep up, we experience heat exhaustion, and in more severe cases, heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion can take place over several days of working outside without proper rehydration. Symptoms include:

  • Moist, clammy skin
  • Weakness and muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Fainting

Treat victims of heat exhaustion by getting them to a cool place with good air movement, get them to lie down, and elevate their legs. Apply cold packs or wet towels while the victim drinks cold water. If symptoms do not improve after 30 minutes, seek medical attention.

Heatstroke is the most severe heat-related illness. Side effects can be as dangerous as organ failure, coma, or death. Symptoms of heatstroke are:

  • High body temperature
  • Hot, dry skin (not sweaty); red, flushed appearance
  • Rapid pulse and difficulty breathing
  • Confusion, hallucinations, or irrational behavior
  • Agitation, convulsions, or seizure

If you suspect someone is having a heat stroke, dial 911 immediately.

"From my experience," Enroth says, "most people suffering from heatstroke may not be aware of their condition until it's too late."

While waiting for emergency personnel, administer first aid to heatstroke victims by moving them to a cool place and removing exessive clothing. Allow the victim to rest while keeping their head and shoulders slightly elevated. Use any means to cool the victim by applying ice packs to the back of the neck, armpits, and groin area or putting them in a cool shower or bath. You will need to monitor their body temperature as the victim cools, as they can snap into hypothermia. Once their body temperature reaches 102 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the icepacks, wet towels, or get them out of the bath/shower. Be vigilant and watch for possible seizures.

Enroth adds, "It doesn't have to be 100 degrees outside for someone to get heat stressed. As winter warms to spring and then summer, our bodies are not adapted to tolerate the heat." It takes one to two weeks to build up a tolerance for working in the heat. Landscapers and gardeners need to transition their bodies by initially scheduling shorter periods of work outside.

"Hydrate before the work begins," Enroth recommends. Take 15-minute breaks every two hours when working outside on a hot day. Consider scheduling the most strenuous activities during the morning or evening, and avoid working during the hottest time of the day. Alcohol and drugs can increase the severity of heat stress, and so can some medications.

Enroth concludes, "Sports drinks are good to have on hand, but the best thing to drink before, during, and after a hot work day is water."

This blog post is written by Extension Educator Chris Enroth, 309-837-3939,