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Healthy heat

It’s shaping up to be a hot early autumn and harvest. Stay safe while you’re in the field

Heard the one about the farmer who wouldn’t drink while he drove the combine?

He refused water, or any other liquid, while trying to get the harvest done, figuring it would mean fewer stops to answer the call of nature. But it didn’t end well. He landed in hospital with dehydration complicating other pre-existing health problems.

Agricultural health and safety officials tell the story to make the point about what happens if you push yourself too hard.

It’s an important reminder for those headed to the field in this fall’s soaring temperatures, too.

Farmers need to be extra careful they don’t get dehydrated working in this hot weather, and to know what heat exposure can do to their bodies, said Kendra Ulmer, a registered nurse with the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.

There is a real risk of getting overheated working in the kinds of temperatures we’re experiencing, and bursts of physical labour combined with the long hours, fatigue can be a dangerous combination when combined with it, the nurse said.

“Definitely hot weather as a whole is looked at as a workplace hazard,” said Ulmer.

That makes hitting those fields without adequate hydration, and intention to stay that way risky business.

Much of Western Canada remained under a heat wave last week, with daytime temperatures last week in the low to mid-30s, and extreme heat building into western Manitoba, the Red River Valley and parts of northeastern Manitoba.

That’s a dry spell for getting a lot of work done fast, of course, and it can happen while still taking good care of yourself, said Ulmer.

And that means drinking lots and lots of water, she stresses. Small amounts consumed frequently — every 15 or 20 minutes — or a cup of water every half-hour is the recommendation.

“Most farmers do carry water with them, but just make sure you’re taking the time to drink it,” she said. “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty.”

She also recommends loading up on liquids the night before or morning of, and that doesn’t mean coffee or tea to keep weary eyes open.

A balanced diet with a lot of leafy greens and fresh fruit and liquids other than sugary drinks, alcohol or caffeinated drinks is going to keep your energy levels up in a way that means less dependence on caffeine, she said.

Ulmer, who speaks regularly to farm groups about health and wellness strategies, also tells farmers that if they aren’t stopping every hour or so for a pit stop, they’re actually not drinking enough liquid.

Of course, the retort she hears to that is ‘not gonna happen,’ but her counter argument is that frequent breaks are good for lots of other reasons. You’ll stretch your legs, have a moment to check the equipment, and movement helps keep you awake and mentally acute, she said.

“This all works together,” she said. “And if you’re drinking better, and eating well and having snacks through the day, you won’t have the headaches and feeling of tiredness from long hours of work.

“It works much better than caffeine, or other stimulants that you might take for the long hours.”

It’s extremely important to recognize that overexposure to heat can also make you seriously ill, she said.

Heat illnesses are related to the body’s inability to cope with heat and can include heat edema, or swelling of hands, feet, and ankles, a heat rash, heat muscle cramps or fainting. Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and is defined as the body temperature higher than 41.1 C or 106 F and associated with neurological dysfunction.

Know the signs of heat stress, says Ulmer. Typically, it starts with a headache, and you may feel increasingly confused or dizzy.

Those are warning signs. Others include very heavy sweating, muscle cramps and changes in your breathing and a rapid pulse rate. These are serious signals of heat illness coming on, and not to be ignored, she said.

“And when you’re feeling too thirsty, chances are you’re way past dehydration,” she said.

Heat cramps usually occur in the most worked muscles, such as an arm or leg and they can come on suddenly. And if you feel nauseous, it’s not because your tailgate lunch didn’t sit well; nausea and vomiting are other signs heat exhaustion is setting in.

“Heat stroke is a progression of heat exhaustion,” said Ulmer. That’s when you’ll feel weak, or confused, upset or start acting strangely. Hot, dry skin or sweating profusely are other red flags. That’s when you call an ambulance, because a heat stroke can kill someone quickly, she said.

Workers should be checking on each other to help spot these kinds of symptoms, she adds.

Her main message to farmers is to stay well by drinking a lot, and eating well, getting as much quality sleep as possible, and keeping covered out in the sunlight to avoid burning.

In other words, that means caring for one’s health and well-being, even when the focus is more likely to be on heat-stressed crops and livestock, and clock and calendar.

“Farmers are notorious for looking after their land, their animals, their employees, their equipment and their finances and the whole picture,” she said.

“It’s really important that they not forget about taking care of themselves too.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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