July of last year brought near-record high temperatures for half of the nation. That month, two HVAC technicians in the U.S. died from heat stroke. Both bodies were found in attics, after the men had succumbed to the dangers that exposure to high heat and exertion can present.
U.S. Boiler Company spoke with a technician last August after he suffered a near-fatal heat stroke. He asked to remain anonymous but wanted very much to share his experience with others, hoping it will help readers protect themselves.
“It can happen to you,” said the technician. “People that work in the trades tend to become acclimated to extreme conditions. We just deal with it, day in and day out, simply because it’s our job. We mentally acclimate to it, but that doesn’t mean we’re physically immune to it. I thought I was being careful enough, and that assumption nearly killed me. Rooftops, attics, and commercial boiler rooms very often exceed ‘safe’ temperatures, and the long hours often brought on by AC season only compound the problem. We need to keep this in mind and take the right precautions. If we don’t, there’s a real possibility of never returning home to our families.”
On the day he suffered a heat stroke, this technician had spent the first half of his day working in an attic, then went to another job and continued working on a flat roof. The outdoor temperature was 99°F.
“I started losing my memory and feeling nauseous, almost acting like I was drunk,” he explained. “I told my helper that something was wrong, and the next thing I remember is waking up to six paramedics surrounding me and being hooked up to an EKG machine. If I’d have been alone, I may have died on that roof.”
Once he arrived at the hospital, the nurse had a very difficult time drawing blood because it had become extremely thick. He was then informed that he had been very close to having a real stroke as a result. With blood that thick, it’s hard for the brain to get sufficient oxygen. He was told that his body temperature had reached 104°F.
While heat exhaustion can escalate quickly to heat stroke, the difference between the two is staggering, and so is the fallout. You sweat profusely while dealing with heat exhaustion. During a heat stroke, you’ve stopped sweating. The body is essentially giving up, shutting down functions, and attempting to save the brain. There’s little or no recovery period for heat exhaustion, aside from the need to cool down and rest. Heat stroke is another story entirely.
“My doctor explained it like this,” said the tech. “When you have a heat stroke, it’s like running all the data-heavy applications on your computer at once. Then, yank the cord out of the wall, which resembles losing consciousness. When you reboot that computer, it takes a lot longer than normal. Some saved data might be lost, and the PC might be glitchy for a while. That’s exactly what I’m dealing with now.”
The technician lost some short term memory upon waking up, but the challenges continue. He is having trouble remembering things from days, hours or minutes ago. This generally lessens as time passes, but it’s still annoying and disconcerting.
“My body is now in self-preservation mode,” he said. “It went through shock from the heat stroke, and it does everything it can to avoid having it happen again. Now, anytime I’m even a little bit hot, I sweat like crazy, my heart races and I get panicky. This is my body’s defense mechanism reminding me to cool off immediately. It makes the work day a lot more challenging. These are telltale warning signs that everyone should be looking for while working.”
It’s common that these lingering symptoms will last days, weeks or months after a heat stroke, and in some cases they never disappear.
Water isn’t enough
Before the incident, the technician had been consuming lots of water all day, under the assumption that it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, all this accomplished was to flush all the sugars, salts and antioxidants out of his body.
“Gatorade and Powerade were formulated for athletes who are sweating profusely and exerting themselves,” he explained. “Sports drinks replenish some of what is lost through sweating. I don’t like drinking all the sugar in sports drinks, but there are low- and no-sugar versions of these beverages. We now keep a cooler full of ice and Gatorade on every truck. I also take Medi-Lyte pills that you can buy on Amazon. They’re about $15 for 500 pills.”
Aside from sports drinks and electrolyte pills, there are other options available to stay safe in extreme heat. Nuun hydration tablets dissolve in water like Alka-Seltzer, and Mio Water Enhancement liquid is a concentrated dietary supplement that is squirted into a water bottle. Both Nuun tablets and Mio additive are flavorful, breaking up the monotony of drinking water alone.
“I learned from the doctor that drinking ice water is also beneficial in extreme heat,” he continued. “I have never liked ice water. It always feels like a shock to my body in hot weather, but I drink it now. It lowers your core temperature in the opposite way that a hot bowl of soup warms you up after being outside in the winter.”
The market is ripe with other products that can help your body stay cool in extreme heat. Vortec makes personal air conditioning vests for this exact purpose. Cooling neck wraps are available too, but keep in mind that some of these must remain wet to be effective, which can be a danger if working around electric. Lastly, there’s no shame in using a pop-up canopy tent for shade if you’re working stationary outside. You can even order these with your company logo on them.
“Don’t be a tough guy,” he says. “It hit home for me when I realized that I may never have seen my wife and kids again. If my helper wouldn’t have been there, it’s quite possible that I would have had a stroke, and my family could have been left fending for themselves. Do what you need to do to stay safe in the heat. The consequences are huge!”