The Pitt Panther is silhouetted against the sky.

It sure is a scorcher out there, but there are ways to avoid being beaten down by the heat.

Four environmental factors affect the amount of stress a worker faces in a hot work area: temperature, humidity, radiant heat (such as from the sun or a furnace) and air velocity.

Perhaps most important to the level of stress an individual faces are personal characteristics such as age, weight, fitness, medical condition and acclimatization to the heat. 

The body reacts to high external temperature by circulating blood to the skin which increases skin temperature and allows the body to give off its excess heat through the skin. However, if the muscles are being used for physical labor, less blood is available to flow to the skin and release the heat.

Sweating is another means the body uses to maintain a stable internal body temperature in the face of heat. However, sweating is effective only if the humidity level is low enough to permit evaporation and if the fluids and salts lost are adequately replaced. Since the body cannot dispose of excess heat, it will store it. When this happens, the body's core temperature rises and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, the individual begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing on a task, may become irritable or sick and often loses the desire to drink.

Workers are especially susceptible to the effects of heat. Each year, thousands of workers become sick from overexposure and some have died as a result.

Generally, there are four major types of heat-related illnesses: heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. All can include changes in heart and breathing rates, dizziness and irritability.

What's the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

Heat exhaustion includes:

  • Headaches, dizziness or fainting
  • Extreme sweating, wet skin
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Nausea or vomiting

Heat stroke includes:

  • Hot, dry, clammy skin
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Unconsciousness
  • Seizures

Of course, there are ways to protect yourself. When the weather is hot, try — if possible — to stay out of the sun. Avoid caffeine and maintain proper hydration. Drink small amounts of water frequently and avoid feeling thirsty. Whenever possible, cool down by seeking shade, water, electrical fans or air conditioning.

Other measures you can take include:

  • Wearing natural-fiber fabrics, such as cotton
  • Avoiding synthetic fabrics, such as nylon
  • When outdoors, covering your skin with loose-fitting, light-colored clothes.
  • Avoiding wearing hats when working indoors
  • Taking regular rest breaks

If you are experiencing a heat-related emergency or see someone displaying the symptoms mentioned above, call the University of Pittsburgh emergency number at 412-624-2121 or dial 911.