Hot tip for working in the heat: take lots of breaks

HOME WORK

July 10, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

When it comes to working in miserable heat, the best advice, it seems, is "Don't."

But what if you have no choice?

You've taken a week off from work to finish the addition and the mercury climbs to 100 degrees -- what are you going to do? Take another week off?

Right. Most home rehabbers don't have that kind of freedom. If you have to finish the job, you may have to work with the heat.

Make no mistake -- excessive heat is dangerous. If it leads to heat stroke, it could be fatal. Fortunately, the precautions for avoiding heat disorders are fairly simple.

"About five things come to mind" for dealing with working in the heat, said Dr. Bill Howard, director of the Sports Medicine Center at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "First, work easier, work less. You just can't do what you could do outside on a crisp fall day.

"Two, drink a lot of liquid -- preferably water, and make sure it's good and cold. Cold water doesn't cause cramps -- that's an old wives' tale," he said. Cold water is more quickly absorbed into the blood stream and it cools off your body "core." ("And it tastes better -- who wants to drink lukewarm water?")

"Three, wear proper clothing --lightweight, light-colored, usually cotton. Four, be aware of what's happening -- if you feel really hot -- that's H-O-T -- if you have cramps in your calves or abdomen, if you're nauseated, maybe a little confused -- that tells you you're getting overheated and you need to knock off. Relax and cool off."

Finally, Dr. Howard said, if you have helpers, people working under you, be aware that they could be at risk. "You have to allow them to take breaks, slow down, cool off."

That point was underscored by Dr. William Mysko, clinical director of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "If the person is new to the job, and wearing whatever clothing might be appropriate to doing the job, and they start out full-force, they're going to be in trouble," Dr. Mysko said. "It's prudent for managers to let them take breaks and cool off."

People can train for working in the heat, he said. "Maybe you get into that same kind of clothing and put in the same hours that you will be putting in on the job." Acclimation can take as little as a couple of weeks, but it may take longer, as many as six weeks, he said. And he warned that problems sometimes occur because people who have become acclimated "get sort of cocky -- they push themselves beyond the danger signals."

Basically, he said, the body is self-regulating. If you pay attention to what it's trying to tell you and don't push yourself past the point of discomfort, you will do better.

One place where the effect of heat on workers has been studied is the U.S. Army Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass. Col. Wayne Askew, a nutritional biochemist who is chief of the Military Nutrition Research Division, said when you have to work in the heat, "The best thing that can be done is to consume an adequate amount of fluid." The Army recommends 12 liters (about 3 1/2 cups per liter) of water a day. It's best to drink small amounts of water continually, he said, or you can drink a liter on arising, a liter before each meal, and a liter before any strenuous activity -- as long as it adds up to 12.

The so-called glucose-electrolyte beverages, such as Gatorade, are OK, he said, but not essential. If you're eating a balanced diet, three meals a day, you should be getting plenty of the potassium and sodium your body needs to regulate fluid volume in and around the cells.

Dr. Askew also noted there's an increased energy requirement for people working in high heat. The difference in metabolic rates at 70 degrees and 100 degrees is about 10 percent, he said. Your body is actually doing more work that you're not aware of to keep its temperature regulated. "But people tend to lose their appetites in the heat, they tend to become dehydrated and run out of energy," and work performance is affected, he said.

In the past, some people have relied on salt tablets to aid body heat regulation. But Dr. Askew said the Army no longer recommends that. Excess salt must be excreted, which requires energy and water, at a time when body fluid is already in short supply. You can get plenty of salt, he said, by liberally salting your food when you eat (we're talking about healthy people who have no hypertension or salt sensitivity), by drinking a glucose-electrolyte beverage, or by dissolving 1/4 teaspoon of salt in a quart of water and drinking that.

During the recent East Coast heat wave, Randy has been digging ditches, shoveling dirt and pouring concrete. He and his colleague have developed several strategies for keeping their cool in the heat. Here are some of their suggestions:

*Change the work day. Work in the early morning or late evening, when temperatures are cooler and the sun is not such a big factor.

*Plan work to avoid the sun. For instance, if your job is painting the house, follow the shade. (It may take a day or two on the job site to figure out where the sun is going to be in relation to the work.)

*Protect yourself from the sun. Wear sunscreen with the highest sun-prevention factor you can find. A sunburn, besides being bad for your skin, will make you feel hotter.

*Heat can make you stupid. Be careful around tools and think things out before you proceed. If you find yourself puzzling over something that would be resolved easily in cooler times, stop working.

*When the day is done, cool down thoroughly. Take cool baths or showers and retreat to an air-conditioned room.

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