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Is it hot enough for you?

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Aaron Gray
  • 36th Medical Group Bioenvironmental Engineering
As military members, we are inherently at higher risk for suffering heat related illnesses than our civilian counterparts. This is largely based on the amount of physical activity we are required to perform as part of our daily duties, frequent moves between different climates, and the additional personal protective equipment we are required to wear.

Heat related injuries were noted as a serious problem during operations in India and Burma during World War II. Heat injuries have continued to follow American Airmen both while deployed and in garrison throughout the history of the Air Force.

As the "heat stress office" at Andersen Air Force Base, the 36th Medical Group Bioenvironmental Engineering Office fields hundreds of questions each year regarding heat stress on Guam. Though the temperatures here are not extreme, typical Guam weather does provide a hot and humid environment daily, creating perfect conditions for personnel to suffer heat related injuries. Many believe the singularly appropriate action for battling heat related injury is to balance workload according to the current heat index. This tool can be used to help reduce the risk of injury; however, it should always be used in addition to common sense and smarter operations. This will multiply efforts in protecting Air Force workers and ensuring effective mission completion.

The most vital piece of information we have for combatting heat injury was enforced daily during basic training. Think back to our training instructor's most commonly used phrases. Many Airmen will remember hearing "hydrate, hydrate, hydrate." For individuals working outside in the elements on Guam, the goal should be to drink between half a quart and a quart of water per hour, being careful not to exceed 12 quarts per day. Adequate water intake provides the means to reduce body core temperature. While vital, hydration is not a means of protecting oneself from the heat; it simply enables physiologic responses through the body to deal with the additional temperatures.

A technique which helps maintain efficient body temperature is to reduce the physical demands of the job, by using mechanical tools to help lift and move objects, or, if possible, rescheduling the strenuous workload outside of the peak heat hours. For Guam, that means scheduling the heavy lifting before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

Another technique for controlling body temperatures when working outside is to schedule regular break periods. The best location for these breaks is in an air conditioned location such as a hardened facility or running vehicle; but, a shaded area will do in a pinch, if needed.

Regular break periods will help moderate exposure to ultraviolet light and allow the body some respite to recover; it's also important to protect our skin from direct ultraviolet rays while working outside. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends us to "suit up" before applying any sunscreen. Wearing uniform items such as service cap, blouse, and work gloves will provide continuous protection against ultraviolet rays to the arms, face, and hands. In addition, our uniform can help reduce the risk of negative health effects from the sun's rays such as wrinkles and skin cancer. This method is likely to be more helpful to those of us that have been on island for a longer period of time and have adapted to the environment. Anyone who has recently arrived on island, or returned may face challenges in adjusting to the heat and humidity levels on Guam. A heavy workload coupled with long clothing may be detrimental for an un-acclimatized individual.

Providing personnel with enough time to acclimatize will help their bodies gradually adjust to Guam's climate. It can take a person up to 14 days to acclimate to a new environment, but everyone is different and takes a different amount of time to reach acclimatization. Failure to allow for enough acclimatization could result in the body not effectively dissipating heat, resulting in additional recovery time from heat related illness.

Additionally, there are military operations with unique requirements such as wearing tyvek suits, mission oriented protective posture gear, or individual protective equipment. These types of personal protective equipment can significantly raise our body core temperature--increasing the risk of suffering from heat related injury. Thus, it is prudent to take extra precaution and listen to our body as well as assessing our Wingman for signs and symptoms of heat stress or injury.

Some of the frequently asked questions about heat stress are:
What are risk factors for heat injury?
-- Dehydration
-- Excessive caffeinated beverages
-- Certain medications and illegal drug use
-- Recent illness such as fever, virus or diarrhea
-- Lack of physical fitness
-- Lack of sleep
-- Recent alcohol intake
-- Obesity

If I feel hot at work, when should I worry about heat injury?
If someone experiences any of the following symptoms, they should move to a cool shaded area and contact emergency services immediately:

-- Heat Stroke: confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, dry skin and body temperature in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

-- Heat Exhaustion: headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, confusion, thirst, heavy sweating, and body temperature in excess of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

What is acclimatization?
Every time a person move from one climate to another, their body goes through a physiological process modifying how it reacts to the environment. The process of acclimatization to heat results in lowered heart rate, pulse pressure, oxygen consumption, electrolyte concentration and core temperature. Additionally, work output, endurance, plasma volume and sweat production rise. These physiological changes allow body functions to adjust in a wide array of environments.
How long does acclimatization take?

It can take up to about 14 days to acclimatize when travel from one environment to another. This is especially true when traveling between warm and cold environments.

Where do one gets the heat category or flag condition?
The heat stress category can be obtained by contacting Bioenvironmental Engineering at 366-7166. However, before contacting Bioenvironmental Engineering for the heat stress condition, use common sense and listen to the body. If feeling overheated, then find a shaded and/or cool breezy area and hydrate.

Flexibility in how we perform required tasks should be encouraged to be able to make the appropriate determinations to effectively safeguard our personnel. Any good leader knows that personnel are the most vital asset in the workplace. We need to ensure proper care of our personnel, which enables us to "provide the President of the United States sovereign options to decisively employ airpower across the entire spectrum of engagement."

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