Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

TOP STORY >> Hot weather is dangerous

Leader staff report

IN SHORT: In July and August, the heat index, which is a combination of heat and humidity, often tops 110 degrees,
making it rough on those who work outside.

Winter is traditionally the season for sickness, but summer’s heat and humidity are a dangerous mix that contributes to illness and possibly death, especially for anyone working outside, such as city employees and airmen at Little Rock Air Force Base.

“With street crews, they’re surrounded by asphalt that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 240 degrees, and they’re applying it without any shade. It’s tough, but they stay hydrated and keep on marching,” said Jimmy Oakley, public works director for Jacksonville.

Health officials recommend drinking moderate amounts of water or sports drinks throughout the day and avoiding caffeinated and carbonated drinks during the day because they increase elimination while delaying hydration.

Heat-related illnesses, causes and treatments include:

- Heat cramps. Muscle pain caused by severe salt depletion due to heavy sweating can be treated through salt replacement, cooling down and gentle massage.

- Heat exhaustion. The most common illness caused by heat. Often occurs while the person is working outside or attending outside events in extremely hot, humid weather. Victim may complain of weakness and feel faint. Other symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headache and confusion. The person should be moved to a cooler place, and wet cloths applied for cooling down. Fluid and salt should be replaced.

Depending on the severity of the illness, hospitalization and intravenous fluid replacement may be necessary. This condition usually comes just before heat stroke.

- Heat stroke or sunstroke. This is a life-threatening condition in which the victim’s temperature-control system stops working. Sweating stops completely and the body’s temperature can rise so high that the nervous system, the brain and other organs can be damaged permanently. Death may occur if the body is not cooled quickly.
The symptoms of heat stroke include sudden high fever, dry skin, delirium, convulsions and seizures. Heat stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 and cool the person as fast as possible with ice, a cold bath and wet sheets until medical help arrives. “We primarily see dehydration and heat exhaustion, which is the level just before heat stroke,” said Kristen James, spokesperson for Rebsamen Medical Center.

“We see those in our emergency room pretty regularly during the summer months and increases during the summer sports season and during football, baseball and when the military has a heavy training session,” James told The Leader.

Those who work, exercise or participate in strenuous activity, such as football practice, for an hour or more during intense heat may eliminate or sweat up to two quarts of water.

“The guys in sanitation have one of the hardest jobs, too. We have four garbage collection trucks and each one visits at least 1,000 houses a day and each truck throws about 10,000 pounds of trash from their specific route.

“They lift and throw bags, jump on and off the truck and sometimes walk ahead of the truck. It’s all strength and durability, not everybody has the wind to keep the pace. They have to pace themselves, of course.

“Other crews can sometimes slow it down a step or two, but sanitation can’t. It’s pretty fast-paced and with designated routes. But if worst comes to worst, we have the option to swap out workers with either community-service people or temporary employees. But above all else, we never run out of liquids,” Oakley explained.

Jacksonville workers in each department have weekly safety meetings to address summer health and heat safety measures.
“We discuss the warning signs of heat exhaustion, such as nausea, headaches, what kind of precautions to take if a coworker gets overheated,” Oakley said.

“We definitely drink more water, or we provide Gatorade, too, which some of the crew members prefer. But we carry plenty of liquids with us wherever we go, whether it’s streets, sanitation, fleet services or animal control. They make sure to pace themselves and stop to take short breaks,” Oakley said.

On Little Rock Air Force Base, airmen stick to a work/rest schedule when working in the heat.

The military has recommended work and rest cycles for outdoor activities. When the temperature tops 90 degrees, it recommends airmen drink a quart of water per hour and rest after 20 minutes of “medium work” such as calisthenics or patrolling.

Employees at Cabot Public Works beat the heat by working when it’s cooler, taking frequent breaks and drinking a lot of water and Gatorade.

“We have water and Gatorade on the trucks and breaks are man-datory,” said Jim Towe, public works director. “We buy Gatorade by the case.”

For most of the year, his employees work from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Towe said. But from Memo-rial Day to Labor Day, they voluntarily give up their 30 minute lunch break in favor of a shorter workday that starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.

However, they still have plenty of time to eat the snacks they carry with them, he said, because they must break in the shade 15 minutes every hour when the temperatures climb.

At the Cabot Post Office, Post-master Bob Peterson says the LLVs (long life vehicles) city mail carriers drive aren’t equipped with air conditioners and the sliding doors must remain closed when the vehicles are moving, so carriers keep cool by various means.

They freeze bottles of water so they have cool water to drink. They drink Powerade supplied by the post office and they borrow customers’ water hoses to soak towels to wear around their necks.

All those little tricks help them get through the hot days, he said, but their customers also help.

“A lot of people feel sorry for them,” Peterson said, “And on hot days they might open a mailbox and find a nice cold drink there.”

The elderly, people with health problems, and very young children are the most vulnerable to heat related illnesses.

While the elderly, people with health problems, and very young children are equally vulnerable, elderly people should avoid staying shut-up indoors during heat waves without using air conditioning.

More than half of the 700 heat-related deaths in the 1995 Chicago heat wave could have been prevented with an air conditioner in the home.

Locally, elderly people 60 and over who can’t afford air conditioning are invited to the Jacksonville Senior Center at 100 Victory Circle where seniors can come at no cost to spend the day in the cool, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. “We offer lunch and activities in the afternoon so it’s a nice way to spend a hot day,” said Barb Seagle of the Jacksonville Senior Center.

On average, there are 400 heat-related deaths a year in the U.S. The heat wave of 1980 was an especially hard one for Arkansas resulting in 153 heat-related deaths. On July 12, 1980 the temperature in Jackson-ville was 105 degrees.

The 1995 heat wave in the Midwest contributed to 716 heat-related deaths in the U.S. that year alone.