SAFETY ADVISORY: Working in hot weather

This year's major news stories continue to unfold in the same countries which have been dominating international news agendas for the past twelve months.

Syria, Egypt, Mali and Afghanistan are hot spots for journalists to work in, but a volatile conflict situation is not the only kind of danger to be factored into the risk assessment process.

Summer in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa often means soaring temperatures and extremely challenging working conditions, and journalists need to be prepared for this before they go into the field. The International News Safety Institute is issuing the following safety advisory for journalists working in hot weather around the world.

Heat and humidity add up to danger

If you are working in a hot environment the heat is likely to affect you, so it is important you are aware of its effects and how your body will react to them.

The elderly and the ill are not the only people heat kills. It also kills healthy young people, usually because they do not recognise the dangers of working or exercising in hot weather - especially hot, humid weather.

The combination of heat and humidity means that sweat evaporates more slowly and the body's natural cooling system does not work properly. In these conditions outdoor work becomes dangerous even for those people in good shape.

Key rules for coping with heat

• Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Be aware that caffeine will dehydrate you

• The fitter you are, the easier it will be to cope with the heat

• Cover up with cotton clothing and wear a hat to protect your head and neck

• Ensure you wear sun block to protect your skin

• Wear light coloured clothing, as dark colours absorb the heat

• Work at a slower pace to acclimatise. Try to keep air conditioning to a minimum when you arrive, as it does not help you to acclimatise

• Do not work outside during the middle of the day, when it is the hottest

• Allow frequent periods of rest and hydration during activity. Fluid replacement is essential to prevent heat injury

• Slow down and cool off if you start feeling tired

• If you have a headache, a high pulse rate or shallow breathing, go inside and rest

• Diuretics and stimulants, including alcohol, may increase the risk of the effects of heat. Make sure you drink plenty of water

• Monitor the colour of your urine. If your urine is yellow, dark brown or smells you are dehydrated and should drink more water. The darker your urine, the less hydrated you are. Drink enough fluids to keep your urine a very light colour

• Make sure you are well hydrated before, during, and after exercise. Replenish your fluids, whether you feel thirsty or not. If you want to exercise then do so at the coolest time of the day wherever you are

• A general recommendation is to drink 3/4 litre of non-caffeinated fluid 2 hours before exercise. Drinking an additional small bottle (75ml) of water or sports drink right before exercise is also helpful. While you are exercising, break for a drink of water every 20 minutes

Overheating can cause serious, even life-threatening conditions such as heat stroke.

Heat cramps

Working or exercising in hot weather can lead to muscle cramps, especially in the legs, because of brief imbalances in body salts. Cramps become less frequent as a person becomes used to the heat.

What is it?

You may experience painful cramping of the larger muscle groups in your legs, arms and abdomen. This could be caused by excessive loss of salt through heavy sweating and/or several hours of sustained exertion.

How to avoid it

Acclimatise when you arrive in the country. Take it easy for the first day and build up to working outside. Try to avoid switching on the air conditioning all the time and drive with the windows open. This will help you to get used to the heat.

How to treat it

• Move the person to a shaded area

• Massage their arms/legs to increase circulation

• Give them 1/2 teaspoon salt in a litre of water, or a sports drink, or salted food plus fluid. Make them sip it or they will vomit

Anyone not used to working in the heat can experience a quick drop in blood pressure, which can lead to fainting. As with heat cramps, the cure is to take it easy.

Heat exhaustion (more serious)

What is it?

Your temperature may increase to 99 -104 ºF (37 - 40 ºC). You may experience heavy sweating, headaches, feel light-headed, nauseous and may even vomit, and feel tingling sensations in your body.

Losing fluid and salt through perspiration or replacing them in an imbalanced way can lead to dizziness and weakness.

Heat exhaustion is more likely after a few days of working in the heat, rather than on the first day. The best defence is to take it easy and drink plenty of water. Don't take salt tablets without consulting a physician.

How to avoid it

Acclimatise when you arrive in the country. Take it easy for the first day and build up to working outside. Try to avoid switching on the air conditioning all the time and drive with the windows open. This will help you to get used to the heat.

How to treat it

• Get the person to a shaded environment and loosen clothing. If you suspect early heatstroke, then treat it as such and get the person to drink as much as they can. They should drink cold water if they can. If they are vomiting then get them to sip it in small amounts

• Give them 1/2 tsp salt in 1 litres water, or a sports drink, or salted food plus fluid

• Apply active cooling measures, such as a fan or ice towels, if they have a temperature

• Try to get them to eat a carbohydrate beverage of 1-2 litres over 2-4 hours

• Take them to a doctor to assess how to replace their fluids. They may need further medical attention, especially if nausea and vomiting are present. 

Heatstroke (the most serious, can be fatal)

What is it?

In some extreme cases the heat can upset the body's thermostat, causing body temperatures to rise to 105 ºF (40 ºC) or higher. This is a very dangerous situation to be in.

The person will be lethargic, disorientated, aggressive, confused and may lapse into unconsciousness. Even a suspicion that someone might be suffering from heat stroke requires immediate medical aid.

How to avoid it

Acclimatise, acclimatise, acclimatise!

It takes around 5 days for most people’s bodies to adapt to heat exposure in a natural environment. It may take up to 14 days for 95% of the population to have complete acclimatisation.

But you can lose this acclimatisation just as quickly.

How to treat it

• Get them to a shaded area

• You must seek immediate medical assistance or take them to a doctor, clinic or hospital

• Monitor their body temperature and lower it as quickly as possible by immersing them in an ice bath, if possible, or cooling them with towels or ice wrapped in towels. Apply ice packs to the armpits, groin, and neck areas

• Remove as much clothing as possible

• Continue cooling efforts until you can get them to medical care

If in doubt, drink water before you feel thirsty!

Note: This safety advisory is based on sensible guidelines for working in hot weather. The views here are those of the author and are personal reflections and safety advice. They are meant to assist the international traveller in being prepared to work in hot weather and are not meant to be negative in nature. This is not proscriptive medical advice and if you are unsure you MUST seek assistance from a qualified medical pracititioner.

INSI holds no responsibility for any ensuing problems as a result of this advice.


Photo: An Egyptian bread vender looks for clients on a bridge over the Nile in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)