Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to stay safe when the heat’s got you beat

(Editor’s Note: Researchers in England have released a new study that suggests even mild dehydration while driving has the same effects as drunk driving.  Land Line staff writer Tyson Fisher has the details here.)

It’s the dog days of summer, and you find yourself stuck in place where you can’t idle. Maybe it’s a loading dock where you’re waiting for a hazmat load, or maybe a high-security facility where visitors aren’t allowed to leave their cabs. Temperatures outside are pushing triple-digits, but behind all that glass in the cab the air temperature is getting even hotter. How long can you just sit there sweating before an inconvenience becomes a serious risk to your health?

The National Weather Service has issued heat advisories throughout the southern and eastern U.S., with heat index values as high as 100 to 110 degrees. Health experts agree that heat illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke should not be taken lightly. As the temperatures rise, the amount of exposure you can take to extreme heat lessens. Susceptibility to heat-related illness can also be increased by factors such as age, obesity and certain medications.

If the above scenario sounds a little far-fetched, consider the recent plight of a tanker truck driver who suffered a heatstroke and had to be hospitalized for days. He had parked his rig at a loading area of a chemical plant in Virginia, where the temperatures outside were 98 degrees. The customer has a strict “no-idle” policy, due to the hazardous materials that were being loaded into the tanker. The driver said he spent over two hours in the cab of his truck, where temperatures soared to 140 degrees. Some plant workers noticed the driver slumped over his steering wheel, pulled him out of the cab and called 911. Paramedics took him to a local hospital.

Land Line spoke to the driver, who asked not to be quoted or identified in this story, and confirmed details of his account with representatives of Arkema Inc., who acknowledged a trucker suffered at heat illness at their Courtland, Va., facility on June 18.

Jo Robertson, director of Crisis Preparedness and Community Relations, said the company was investigating the incident to determine what happened.

“We do require drivers to remain within 25 feet of their vehicles,” Robertson said. “I think it’s unconscionable that he would’ve thought he needed to sit in the cab of a truck that was that hot. We’ve got to be a safe facility. If trucks idling pose a threat, well, we’ve got to be a safe facility.”

Robertson said the plant has an air-conditioned employee break room within 25 feet of the loading area, complete with windows that provide a view of the truck. She said plant officials determined the driver did go into the break room “at some point” but for reasons that she says remain unclear, left the break room and returned to the cab.

“If there was some misunderstanding, we will make sure we are much clearer in the future,” she said.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, heat emergencies such as the one that befell the driver at Arkema are caused by exposure to extreme heat and sun. Heat-related injuries can also occur due to high temperatures and humidity.

The NLM states that a person is more likely to feel the effects of heat sooner if he or she is not used to high temperatures or humidity; is a child or an older adult; is already ill from another cause or injury; or if he or she is obese.

Consuming alcohol or not drinking enough fluids on warmer days can also hurt the body’s ability to regulate temperature, making a heat emergency more likely. Certain medications, such as beta blockers, water pills or diuretics, and anti-depressants can also increase the risk of heat-related emergencies or illnesses.

Heat cramps are the first stage of heat illness. If untreated, these can lead to heat exhaustion and then heatstroke. Heat cramps are often characterized by muscle cramps or pains, often in the legs or abdomen, very heavy sweating, fatigue and thirst.

If left untreated, those symptoms can turn into heat exhaustion, characterized by headache, weakness, dizziness or light-headedness, nausea and vomiting and dark urine.

The most serious heat-related illness is heatstroke, which manifests as fever, irrational behavior and extreme confusion, a rapid and weak pulse, rapid and shallow breathing, seizures or unconsciousness. Heatstroke is also characterized by the victim having dry, hot and red skin.

Treatments for heat illness or emergency include applying cool wet cloths or cool water to the person’s skin. You can also use a fan or cold compresses to lower the person’s body temperature. The NLM also provides a list of things not to do when treating a heat emergency, such as giving the patient aspirin or acetaminophen, salt tablets (unless mixed with water) or alcohol or caffeinated beverages.