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In peak of summer, prevention is key to avoiding heat-related illness

Danielle Aasen, a coach for the Pact 4 Guia Program, stays hydrated at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Two-thirds of the way through the Spicer Fourth of July parade route last weekend, Bobbie Bauman and the rest of the dog handlers from the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter had reason to be glad they were accompanied by a flatbed trailer.

"We were able to jump on because the dogs were getting warm," Bauman said.

Although the mercury has yet to reach the triple-digit zone, the peak of summer has arrived -- and so has the need to stay cool. One of the biggest concerns is avoiding dehydration, said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

"People dehydrate quickly," she said. "If it's windy, you're going to be even more dehydrated."

The temperature doesn't have to be in the upper 90s, though, to increase the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke; high humidity can be a factor too, she said.

"Your skin doesn't cool off as readily, and that's a danger," she said.

For outdoor workers such as landscapers and road construction crews, there's no escaping the weather.

Out on the road, toiling under a blazing sun and surrounded by heavy equipment, it gets hot for workers with the Kandiyohi County Public Works and Highway Department.

"I'm sure the pavement temperature a lot of times is in the 120-degree range," said Kevin Fritz, the department's maintenance engineer.

To minimize the risk that workers will fall victim to the heat, the Highway Department, like many other employers whose work takes place outdoors, provides training each spring on how to recognize heat-related illness and how to prevent it.

"There's plenty of opportunity to have heat-related exhaustion. We still need to do our outside work even in the heat and humidity," Fritz said. "Hydration is the big thing."

Crews are told to have an ample supply of water, he said. They're also provided with lightweight mesh safety vests that help wick sweat away from the body.

When the temperature really soars, the day's schedule is usually rearranged so crews can work outdoors in the morning, when it's cooler, and concentrate on other tasks, such as equipment maintenance, during the hottest part of the day, Fritz said.

Even for dogs and their handlers, the dog days can be uncomfortably hot. In the heat of summer, the volunteer walkers who take the dogs outdoors each day at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter are advised to bring water, said Bauman, the shelter's animal care director.

"We tell the walkers to just make short trips and bring the dogs back in," she said.

It's the very young and the very old, however, who are most vulnerable to the effects of heat. In hot weather, babies, very young children and the elderly should stay in the shade or indoors where there's air conditioning, DeBruycker said.

Families on an outing or a picnic should be alert for signs of heat stress in a toddler or elderly relative, she said. "Watch out for them. If you're with someone who says they're starting to feel lightheaded, get them to the shade as quickly as possible. Get fluids into them."

Weekend athletes can be another risk group, she said.

On hot or muggy days, people engaged in vigorous activity should either stick to cooler times of the day or slow their pace so they don't get overheated, she said.

As for drinks containing caffeine or alcohol, they may be refreshing but ultimately increase dehydration, she said. "Because you're feeling cool doesn't mean you're not dehydrated."

Sports drinks can be beneficial for athletes who need to replenish their electrolytes. For most people, though, "plain old water" is best, she said.

Despite their occupational exposure to summer heat, Fritz can't think of a time when a county highway department worker came down with heat-related illness.

"I think the big thing is awareness," he said. "As long as you've got it in your mind, that's half the battle."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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