Farmers: What to know when working in the heat

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Heat wave expected to scorch Central, Eastern U.S.

Farmers have to work when the sun shines — and unbearably beats down, scorching everything around — including those working the land, trying desperately to get crops harvested. And then there is the suffocating humidity we have been experiencing recently in Wisconsin. 

Every farmer is well aware of steps for keeping their animals safe in extreme hot weather, but keeping themselves safe is even more important, since it could result in valuable time lost to illness. 

For those who have to work in the heat for extended periods of time, it's more than an uncomfortable nuisance that many people complain about. 

“(Heat) is not an inconvenience or a nuisance,” said Marc Schenker, a professor at the University of California-Davis who researches the health effects of farm work. “It’s very real, with consequences that can range from minor to fatal.”

Exposure to extreme heat when the body is unable to maintain a normal temperature can result in illness or even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Farmers are among the outdoor workers at higher risk of heat stress. Others at greater risk include those who are 65 years of age or older, are overweight, have heart diseases or high blood pressure, or those who take medications that may be affected by extreme heat. 

Trying to drink a liter of water an hour, which is about one 8 ounce cup every 15 minutes, can help prevent heat-related illness.

Heat waves are dangerous weather related events that have resulted in heat stroke deaths in Wisconsin as well as incidents where workers were admitted to the hospital with life-threatening dehydration, OSHA Compliance Assistance Specialist Leslie Ptak said in an email. 

With forecasted temperature highs in the 90 on Thursday and Friday and the mid to upper 80s over the weekend, it's important to prevent heat related illness which can result in heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps or heat rashes. 

Types of heat-related illnesses

Heat rash is the most common problem, according to the U. S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It's caused by sweating and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters that can appear on the neck, upper chest, groin, under breasts and elbow creases. Treatment involves keeping the area dry and providing a cooler, less humid work environment. 

Heat cramps, muscle pains caused by the loss of body salt and fluids from sweating, can be avoided by drinking water and or carbohydrate-electrolyte replacement liquids. Workers with heat cramps should replace lost fluids by drinking water or sports drinks every 15-20 minutes, according to OSHA.

Heat syncope, or fainting, usually occurs with prolonged standing or a sudden rising from sitting or lying, according to the CDC. Dehydration or lack of acclimatization can contribute to heat syncope. 

Rhabdomyolysis, according to the CDC, is a medical condition associated with heat stress and prolonged physical exertion which results in the rapid breakdown, rupture and death of muscle tissue. When the tissue dies, electrolytes and large proteins are released into the blood and can cause irregular heart rhythms, seizures and damage to kidneys. 

Heat exhaustion is more serious. Headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating and a body temperature greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit are signs of heat exhaustion. The best treatment is to cool down with cold compresses to the head, neck and face or wash with cold water as well as taking frequent sips of cool water. OSHA recommends that individuals with symptoms of heat exhaustion should be medically evaluated.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency that could result in death and requires immediate medical help. The signs of heat stroke are confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. Individuals experiencing heat stroke have a very high body temperature and may stop sweating. They should seek a shady, cool area and 911 should be called. While waiting for medical care, cool the person with cool water, circulating air and cold, wet cloths or ice all over the body.

When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit within 10-15 minutes, according to the CDC. 

Preventing heat illness

With heat warnings abounding across much of Wisconsin, it's important to take measure to prevent heat-related illness when working on the farm or outdoors in general.

Working under full sun in 90 degrees Fahrenheit and higher is the main factor in adding to heat stress, according to the Association of Farmworkers Opportunity Programs (AFOP), but age, fitness level, medical conditions, heavy machinery and humidity contribute as well. Simple steps like drinking lots of water, taking breaks and getting in the shade will help ward off heat illness. 

Related:As temperatures climb, there's a new federal push to keep workers safe

While the body can build tolerance (acclimatize) to working in the heat, it may take up to 14 days or longer to adjust, according to OSHA. When the weather heats up quickly or temperatures become excessively hot, even those who are acclimatized to the heat should monitor their activity. OSHA recommends 50% of a normal workload and time spent in the hot environment on the first day of excessive heat, increasing to 60% on the second day, 80% the third day and 100% the fourth day. 

Remembering three words can go far in preventing heat-related illness —- water, rest, shade. Have easily accessible cool drinking water available, trying to drink a liter of water an hour, which is about one 8 ounce cup every 15 minutes, according to OSHA. It's also important to have fully shaded or air conditioned areas for resting and cooling down. 

In the midst of peak production seasons, it's nearly impossible to limit the amount of exposure to the heat and humidity. Find a shady spot to cool off, rest periodically and replace lost fluids.

Fluid intake should generally not exceed 6 cups per hour, according to the CDC. Drinks containing balanced electrolytes are recommended for prolonged sweated lasting several hours. It's also advisable to avoid alcohol and drinks with high caffeine or sugar, which can add to dehydration. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA developed a smartphone heat safety app available at no cost for iPhones and Android phones. The GPS on the app determines your location, the temperature at your location displays the risk level to outdoor workers and with a click gives steps to take to prevent heat illness. For more information on the app visit

On ounce of prevention is definitely worth more than a pound of cure when it comes to heat illness. As the heat descends on the state and much of the country, take steps to keep yourself, your family and workers safe and cool.

USA TODAY contributed to this article. 

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at