A UK P&I Club Member recently reported the death of two crew members. The crew were found unresponsive onboard, apparently suffering from heat stroke. Sadly, particularly at this time of year, this is not an isolated incident.
When the temperature rises, it’s important to be vigilant about the dangers of heat exhaustion and heat stroke by maintaining safe working hot temperatures.
Heat stroke, also called sun stroke, is a type of severe heat illness that results in a body temperature greater than 40°C (104°F).Heat stroke regularly occurs as a development from milder heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat syncope (fainting) and heat exhaustion. Worryingly, heat stroke can also strike with no previous signs of heat injury.
Symptoms can include confusion and disorientation as well as red, dry or damp skin, headache and dizziness. Additionally, increased thirst, shallow breathing and a body temperature over 40°C (104°F) can be a cause for concern. Onset can be sudden or gradual, and complications may include respiratory problems, seizures and kidney failure.
Perspiration is the body’s best heat-control mechanism but the salt and water that is lost must be replaced. The salt is best taken with food and supplemented by drinks containing salt to prevent heat cramp.
Seafarers must take care when working in hot temperatures, on deck in the sun, or in engine rooms and other confined spaces. In very hot conditions, as well as drinking plenty of water, seafarers ought to wear protective clothing that ensures the free circulation of air to allow evaporation of sweat.
What to do when heat stroke strikes
- Move to a cool, shady or air conditioned place and remove any unnecessary clothing.
- Lie down and raise their feet slightly.
- Wrap the patient in a cold wet sheet until their temperature falls to at least 38°C (100.4°F).Measure this with a thermometer under their tongue or under their armpit.
- If no sheet is available, use a fan or sponge with cold water to keep the patient cool.
- Use ice packs and apply to the patient’s armpits, neck and back. Because these areas are rich with blood vessels close to the skin, cooling them may reduce body temperature.
- Once their temperature seems to have gone back to normal, replace the wet sheet with a dry sheet.
- While waiting for help to arrive, keep checking the patient's temperature, as well as breathing, pulse and level of response.
- Repeat the cooling process to lower their temperature to normal levels.
- If loss of responsiveness occurs, open airway, check breathing and prepare to treat someone who has become unresponsive.