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Prevent Heat Illness from Turning Deadly

Heat can kill, and it doesn’t take long. A pregnant teenager died when her body temperature climbed to 108 degrees after working in a Lodi vineyard. A 42-year-old- worker collapsed in a company truck and died after he had been loading grape boxes in heat above 100 degrees. Cases have been reported in which workers seemed fine at lunch and in a couple hours were found having seizures or unconscious.

"Heat-related illness and death are reaching alarming levels in our state," says Adam Dombchik a Workers’ Compensation partner in the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton and Goldstein. "The problem is not endemic to just a couple types of businesses, it crosses a wide variety of industries, from farm workers and carwash workers to delivery people, laundry workers, groundskeepers, construction workers and public safety officers.

"The irony is that it is so preventable. Employers need to follow standards set by Cal-OSHA [the state’s division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] when it comes to such basics as providing workers with shade, potable water and adequate rest breaks."

Since best laid plans don’t always come to fruition, employees need to educate themselves on how to understand the causes and recognize the symptoms of heat illness, both heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion occurs when one’s body can’t maintain normal functions due to excessive loss of body fluids and salts. Symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Feeling tired, weak or dizzy
  • Headache
  • Loss of coordination
  • Cramps, muscle pain or spasms
  • Heat rash—small red bumps on the skin 
  • Weak and rapid pulse

Treatment should include:

  • Moving the person to a cooler, shaded area; don’t leave the person alone.
  • Providing water, little by little.
  • Making sure the person lies down with the feet elevated.
  • Cooling the person by fanning and applying wet cloths.

Untreated heat exhaustion can escalate into heat stroke, which is a life-threatening emergency stemming from the body’s inability to regulate its core temperature. Symptoms include:

  • Body temperature of 105 degrees or higher
  • Red, dry, hot skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Strong, rapid pulse
  • Extreme disorientation
  • Unconsciousness and possibly convulsions

Treatment should include:

  • Calling 911 immediately; a heat stroke victim needs urgent care.
  • Moving the person to a shaded, cooler place until medical help arrives.
  • Loosening tight clothing.
  • Cooling the person by sponging the body with cool water or wrapping in wet sheets.
  • Not giving the victim anything to drink, not even water.

If your job requires that you perform physical activities in hot weather, drink plenty of fluids such as water and sports drinks, but avoid alcohol and drinks with caffeine, which may lead to dehydration. Hats and lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing also help. And, keep in mind that some medications, including antihistamines, certain antidepressants and tranquilizers, can increase the risk of heat-related illness.

The Centers for Disease Control website is a good resource for learning more about heat illness.

In addition, the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCalCOSH) is dedicated to turning dangerous conditions into safe work areas. This organization is a coalition of local union, community group, health and legal advocates.

"We have long held that knowledge is power," says Dombchik. "When it comes to preventing heat illness, a little knowledge can save a life."

On-the-job injuries and illnesses may result from a certain event or occur over time. If you would like to speak with an attorney about a case, please call 213-739-7000.



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