Dangers of heat onboard

Jun 15, 2015 by Keith Murray

As I write this, I am enjoying the warm, 84 degree weather that Florida summers offer. I love the heat. Having grown up in Pennsylvania and shoveled my fair share of snow, I vowed when moving to Florida that I would never complain about the heat. To me, warm weather makes being on the water more fun and makes an ice cold beer taste even better.

But could the heat be dangerous?

Excessive heat exposure caused 8,015 deaths in the United States from 1979 to 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More people have died in this time period from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

The first thing I want to stress is prevention of heat-related emergencies. You know the old saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With heat-related emergencies, think in terms of ounces. Ounces of water, that is, not alcohol, coffee, tea or soda, which dehydrate you. Think and drink water.

When working or playing outdoors in the heat, drink a lot of cool water. Make certain you break often for more cool water. Notice I said cool not cold, because cold drinks may cause stomach cramps.

There are many things that can cause a heat-related emergency, especially high temperatures and high humidity. Often high heat and humidity affect the body’s ability to cool itself. When the humidity is high, your sweat will not evaporate quickly. This sweat on the skin prevents the body from releasing heat quickly.

Other factors that may increase your risk are age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, and poor circulation. Sunburn, and prescription drug and alcohol use can also affect our body’s ability to cool itself. And yes, a hard night of drinking can increase your risk factor. You may consider switching to club soda if you know you will have a long hot day in the sun the next day.

Here are the top five ways to avoid heat-related emergencies:

  1. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids (preferably water) before, during and after physical activity. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.
  2. Work smarter, not harder. When possible, schedule outdoor work during the cooler parts of the day, early in the morning or early in the evening.
  3. Ease into summer.  Allow your body to adapt partially to heat through repeated gradual daily exposures. It may take your body up to two weeks to get acclimated to the heat.
  4. Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing that allows the body to breath.  Look for lightweight, light-colored clothing in breathable fabrics that allow sweat to evaporate.
  5. Work with a buddy. Try to work with others for safety. You can keep an eye on each other and remind each other to take frequent water breaks.

When working with children in the heat, consider ways to make drinking water fun. Think of creative ways to encourage them to take water breaks, making certain they drink enough water throughout the day.

If you overdo it and begin to feel a bit off, take a break and have water. And watch for the warning signs of these two common heat-related emergencies:

Heat exhaustion. Symptoms include cold, moist skin and chills; dizziness or fainting; fast, shallow breathing; headache; muscle cramps; nausea, vomiting or both; and weak or rapid pulse.

Heat stroke. Symptoms include confusion and/or unconsciousness; high body temperature (above 103 degrees F); nausea, vomiting or both; strong and rapid pulse; throbbing headache; and warm, dry or moist skin.

Warning signs for heat stroke vary but may also include red, hot and dry skin (no sweating), rapid, strong pulse and dizziness. If you see any of these signs, you may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Call for immediate medical assistance, get the victim out of the sun, and cool the victim rapidly by placing the person in a cool shower or spraying with cool water from a hose.

If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call or radio for further emergency medical instructions, which may include giving the patient oxygen.

Lastly, if there is vomiting, make sure the airway remains open by turning unconscious victims on their side in the recovery position.

Remember, it is much easier to prevent these heat related emergencies than it is to treat them. Drink plenty of water and look for the early warning signs.

Keith Murray, a former firefighter EMT, owns The CPR School, a first-aid training company. He provides onboard training for yacht captains and crew and sells and services AEDs. Contact him at 877-6-AED-CPR, 877-623-3277 or www.TheCPRSchool.com. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.