Ag workers at high risk of heat illnesses

Water, rest and shade prevent heat stress.

  • Published: Thursday, June 15, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Agriculture workers are 20 times more likely than other workers to die from heat.

Heat deaths are 100 percent preventable with water, rest and shade, says University of Missouri Extension health and safety specialist Karen Funkenbusch.

That is why she encourages everyone to support the “Summer 2017 Beat the Heat” campaign from the U.S. Agricultural Safety and Health Centers and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Workers in farming, fishing and forestry are at high risk of heat illness because heat builds in the body during hard work. Heat illness occurs when the body can no longer cope and physical and mental functions start to break down.

Farmers should be aware that heat stroke occurs when temperatures may not seem abnormally high, says Kate Smith, a health science paraprofessional working with Funkenbusch.

Heat stroke doesn’t only affect you on those 105-degree days, Smith says. “You can be in danger when temperatures are over 80 degrees and humidity is over 75 percent. Acclimate yourself to blistering temperatures and be especially cautious if you work in direct sunlight.”

Funkenbusch says many heat illnesses are misdiagnosed. By the time workers reach an emergency room, symptoms may resemble those of a heart attack.

Under federal law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety risks, including extreme heat.

Signs of heat exhaustion include dizziness, headache, sweaty skin, weakness, cramps, nausea, vomiting and a fast heartbeat. Symptoms of heat stroke include red, hot, dry skin, high temperature, confusion, convulsions and fainting.

NIOSH offers a free app to track the heat index. Download it at

Funkenbusch gives the following suggestions to avoid heat illness:

• Drink water every 15 minutes. Do not wait until you are thirsty. By then, it is too late.

• Rest in the shade to cool down.

• Wear a hat and light-colored clothing.

• Keep an eye on fellow workers and family members. Ask them to watch for you.

• Start working in the heat gradually. Acclimate yourself to the heat.

Find more resources at

Writer: Linda Geist

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Karen Funkenbusch

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