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Summer safety: Know the signs of heat stress

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- It's that time of year again when sunny Florida lives up to its name. However, with an increase in temperatures, there's an increase for potential heat stress incidents.

When the environmental temperature rises above that of your body, the only way for your body to cool itself down is through perspiration. The wind also plays an important role in regulating temperature. As it blows, heat is taken away from your body when sweat evaporates.

The 1st Special Operations Aerospace Medicine Squadron's bioenvironmental office conducts Wet Bulb Globe Temperature Index tests that measure the potential heat stress risk anytime the ambient temperature reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit and remains there for three hours during the hot weather months.

Temperature and humidity are also monitored, and the WBGT accounts for the impact made from direct sunlight. These readings are available to supervisors to help adjust work schedules and determine safe times to conduct physical fitness training.

There are several human factors that increase the likelihood of a heat-related incident. People who are not acclimatized to the heat are more likely to have a heat-related incident. The average healthy person takes at least 10-14 days to acclimate. Other human factors are as follows:
  • Obesity, elderly or anyone in poor physical shape
  • People with compromised immune systems¬†
  • Excess use of alcohol decreases your ability to deal with heat stress
  • Clothing should be loose to help circulation and movement of air over the skin
The human body is highly dependent on water to cool itself in a hot environment. An individual may lose in excess of one quart of water per hour through sweating. Water loss should be replaced by periodic intake of small amounts of water through the work period. However, normal thirst does not serve as a true indication of the body's need for water, so personnel should be encouraged and given time to hydrate.

Successful prevention of heat's adverse effects on exposed people depends largely on educating personnel. Prevention of heat injuries requires the development of procedures to alert individuals of the signs of heat stress, and when to seek medical attention.

There are three distinct heat injuries that may occur. These injuries are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The injuries produce clear signs that all military personnel should be familiar with in order to assist with first aid treatment.

Heat Cramps: Cramps involving the arms, legs and abdomen that could occur alone or with heat exhaustion. To treat this, have the member lie down to rest in shade and give fluids such as water or a sports drink.

Heat Exhaustion: Profuse perspiration, hyperventilation, headache, numbness, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and possibly momentary loss of consciousness. To treat this, lie the person down in a cool environment with their feet elevated four to six inches. Give the person fluids to drink, and loosen their clothing for better air circulation.

Seek medical attention if heat exhaustion is suspected. From January to December 2011, there were 20 cases of heat exhaustion on Hurlburt Field. So far in 2012, there have been four.

Heat Stroke: THIS IS A MEDICAL EMERGENCY! Early symptoms of heat stroke could include hot, red skin; sweating may or may not be present; breathing will be abnormally deep; there may be headache; dizziness; mental confusion; and a rapid pulse. Late symptoms include a sudden, dramatic collapse and loss of consciousness, convulsions, shallow and irregular breathing, vomiting, disturbed muscle tone and a blue tint to the skin.

For treatment, call 911 immediately for transport to an emergency room. Do not leave the person alone. Move the individual to a cool, shady area, loosen clothing, and sprinkle water on them or wrap them in a damp sheet. If possible, immerse the individual in water. Massage the arms and legs to maintain circulation. In 2011, there were zero cases of heat stroke on Hurlburt Field, but there have already been two in 2012.

It is important for us to have vigilance and be good Wingmen.

For any additional information, please contact Hurlburt Field Public Health at 881-3356.