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Avoiding The Silent Killer – Heat Stress


Working on hot days can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke Extreme heat is a significant risk to Canadians, especially seniors, children, and those with chronic illness. Surprisingly, it’s estimated that  120 people die each year  in Toronto, from conditions caused by exposure to extreme heat. Extreme heat is called the ‘silent killer’ because it’s not a visible environmental threat like a fire or flood.

With summer is in full swing, temperatures are rising, and we are spending more and more time outside, which means we need to be on the lookout for heat stress, or heat-related illnesses.

Our bodies were designed to naturally cool off when we sweat, but that isn’t always enough, especially in extreme hot weather. Heat-related illnesses come in many forms and can be fatal, if they are not managed. While many of us may feel that we are not at risk for heat-related illness, it just isn’t the case. Everyone is at risk, but especially:

  • Seniors
  • Infants and children
  • People who work outside
  • Athletes and people who like to exercise
  • Alcoholics and drug abusers
  • Those with heart or circulatory problems, or any long-term illness

Avoiding Heat-Related Illnesses 

Limiting the time you spend outside on hot days, is the best way to avoid heat exhaustion, but that isn’t always possible, especially if your job requires you to work outside.

To help prevent heat stress when can’t avoid exposure, consider the following:

  1. Stay hydrated – drink more water than you think you need and stay away from fluids that could cause dehydration, such as pop, coffee and alcohol.
  2. Wear the right clothing – wear loose, lightweight clothing and keep your head covered
  3. Replace salt – when you sweat, you lose salt from your body. Maintain safe salt levels by drinking fruit juice and sports drinks.
  4. Stay inside during the hottest part of the day – if you must be outside on a hot day, organize your day so that you are inside as much as possible between 11 am and 3 pm
  5. Protect your skin – when you get sunburnt, your body has difficulty cooling itself off. Always wear sunscreen even on cloudy days.
  6. Pace yourself – Nowadays, we seem to be always in a hurry, but overexerting yourself in excessive heat can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. Take your time.

How to Recognize Heat-Related Illnesses and What to Do

Even when we take all the necessary precautions, we can still be at risk of becoming sick from excessive heat. There are three major heat-related illnesses to be aware of: heatstroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps. Before stepping, be sure to make note of the signs, symptoms and first aid proceudres for common heat-related illness.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and can lead to permanent organ damage and even death. Heatstroke occurs when your body fails to produce sweat and your temperature rises.

Signs of heat stroke can include:

  • Extremely high body temperatures above 39°C (103°F)
  • Skin that is hot to the touch
  • An altered mental state
  • Coma
  • Seizures
  • Pounding headaches
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Slurred Speech 

When experiencing heat stroke, it is critical that you rid the body of the excess heat. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs, follow these steps:

  1. Move the person into the shade. Put them in a half-sitting position
  2. Call 9-1-1 immediately
  3. Cool them off
    1. If the humidity is above 75%, apply ice to the groin, armpits and neck
    2. If humidity is below 75% spray them with water and fan them vigorously
  4. Do NOT give them aspirin, acetaminophen or anything to drink

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body loses excessive amounts of water and salt. This is most common for people who work outside and athletes.

Signs of heat exhaustion are often similar to those experienced when someone has the flu and can include:

  • Severe thirst
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Heavy sweating
  • Cramps
  • Loss of colour
  • Cool, moist skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Fainting

If someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, do the following:

  1. Place them in a cool shaded area or get them into an air-conditioned room
  2. Loosen clothing
  3. Give them water and other cool beverage to sip; do NOT give them alcohol
  4. Apply wet towels or put them in a cool shower

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps occur when your muscles (especially leg and abdominal muscles) spasm. These spasms are painful, involuntary and intermittent. Heat cramps usually occur after a physical activity and are a result of excessive sweating, which reduces your salt levels.

If you experience heat cramps, stop doing the activity that cause them and:

  1. Find a shaded area to sit or lie down under
  2. Drink cool fluids – water and sport drinks are the best choice; do NOT drink alcohol
  3. Stretch the cramped muscles
  4. If the cramps do not get better within an hour, seek medical attention

If the cramps do subside, you should not return to physical activity for a few hours.

The best way to avoid heat cramps, or any heat-related illness, is to avoid the heat. If you do have to spend time in the heat, be sure to drink enough fluids, protect your skin, cover your head, and be prepared to recognize the signs of heat stroke, heat exhaustion and heat cramps, so that you can respond quickly.

Contact us to learn more about heat-related illnesses or to find a first aid training course near you. 


About F.A.S.T. Rescue

F.A.S.T. Rescue are health and safety experts offering consulting, supplies and training solutions that help make employees safe in the workplace. We’re passionate about health and safety, offering unrivaled value and solutions with a satisfaction guarantee. Headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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