Heat-related injuries can render farm workers helpless before they even realize they are in trouble. And, depending on the severity—ranging from heat cramps, to heat exhaustion or heat stroke—heat stress may lead to a few hours or days of lost work time or to life-threatening injury.

Dr. James Mobley, M.D., told participants at the recent Coastal Bend Grain Storage and Handlers Safety Conference in Sinton, Texas, that as many as 600 people die of heat-related causes a year across the United States. Texas gets its share.

He explained the difference between the most serious forms of heat illness—heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat cramps begin with muscle cramping, headache and overall just feeling bad. “Pay attention,” he warned. “Get the person into the shade, get him fluid and have him rest.” Managers and fellow employees should watch someone who has experienced heat cramps carefully for several hours, maybe longer. “Ease them back into the work routine. Someone with heat cramps is on the edge of a major heat injury. Stay on top of it. Also, be wary of getting in a car and turning the air conditioning on full blast.”

Major injury would describe heat exhaustion. “This is a medical emergency, Mobley said. “It can be very deadly very quickly.”

Symptoms include a headache and the victim may “be woozy and stagger around. The person is right on the edge of heat stroke and needs IV fluids. Get him to an emergency room quickly. Renal failure can occur.

“Get him out of the heat and call 911 if in a location where an ambulance is available. If not, transport the victim yourself. Get the person cool but not cold. When traveling, roll down the window,” instead of cranking up the air conditioner. Mobley said one situation that heat exhaustion victims must avoid is having the body lose its ability to regulate body temperature, a dangerous possibility with heat stroke.

“Get fluid into him if he’s not vomiting,” he added. “Fluids should be cool but not cold.”

Mobley recommends one quart of a sports drink to every three quarts of regular water. “Sports drinks have too much salt. Drink a lot of water. If you have to choose, drink water.”

He said sodas are okay. “It’s not a big deal to drink sodas.” Avoiding too much salt is important, however, since salt acts as a diuretic.