In the United States, it is estimated that high school athletes suffer an average of 9,237 time-loss heat illnesses each year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Time-loss heat illnesses, as defined in the Journal of Athletic Training, are exertional heat illnesses that cause athletes to take time off their sports for one or more days.
The Journal also lists the following exertional heat-related illnesses: exercise-associated muscle (heat) cramps, heat syncope or orthostatic dizziness, exercise (heat) exhaustion, exertional heat stroke, and exertional hyponatremia. In Florida, the dangers of heat-related illnesses are present nearly year-round.
Florida Heat Safety Law
The death of a Fort Myers student-athlete in 2017 led to new heat safety laws for high school teams in Florida named The Zachary Martin Act, after the young football player who tragically lost his life after experiencing heat trauma. After Martin’s mother created a foundation and campaigned for the law, the heat safety law went into effect in 2020.
Prior to the enactment of the bill, Florida led the nation in heat-related deaths among student-athletes. During the 2017-2018 school year, more than 460 student-athletes were treated for exertional heat stroke. The Zachary Martin Law provides Florida High School Athletic Association schools with guidelines for keeping students safe during sports activities and mandatory safety protocols.
FHSAA schools are now required to have an operational automated external defibrillator on school grounds in case of cardiac emergencies related to heat stress. An employee or volunteer trained in using a defibrillator and cardiopulmonary resuscitation must also be present at every sporting event. Additionally, the law requires athletic coaches and sponsors to complete exertional heat illness training yearly and includes further guidelines on monitoring and preventing heat-related illnesses.
How Student-Athletes Can Stay Safe From Extreme Heat
Student-Athletes are most at risk of heat illness during the first three days of an outdoor training season, before the body has had sufficient time to acclimate to extreme temperatures. On average, the body takes about three days to reach peak heat acclimatization.
During heat acclimatization, the body begins the process of plasma volume expansion, which helps the cardiovascular system to work more efficiently and increases blood supply, thereby causing heat to dissipate more quickly. An increase in the amount an individual perspires also helps cool the body down. The body also begins to store more salt, helping to balance electrolytes and maintain hydration, while the heat rate decreases causing less overall strain on the cardiovascular system.
To keep athletes safe, athletic trainers and club sponsors should follow heat safety temperature guidelines and gradually increase the duration and intensity of training sessions. Teams should also avoid training during the hottest parts of the day. Wet Bulb Temperature Monitoring can be used to determine the best times to train and when to rest, how long a practice session should be, as well as when to take hydration breaks, and whether to wear equipment.
Heat Safety Temperature Guidelines
Even when a body has reached acclimation, a heat-related injury may still occur. Athletes should never practice in extreme heat, which in hotter climates like Florida is a temperature over 92 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to FHSAA guidelines, if a temperature reading is between 82.1 and 87 degrees athletes should take four-minute breaks for every hour of activity. When the temperature is between 87.1 and 90 degrees, the activity should be no more than two hours in duration, and athletes should be given four-minute rest breaks per hour of activity. Between 90.1 and 92 degrees, the activity should not last more than one hour and athletes should receive five separate four-minute rest breaks. Further, athletes should not wear protective equipment or engage in conditioning drills at these higher temperatures.
Symptoms of Heat Illness
The CDC names five heat-related illnesses. They are heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn, and heat rash. Each exhibits its individual symptoms.
- Heat stroke: the warning signs of heat stroke include an elevated body temperature or 103 degrees or higher, hot, dry, red, or damp skin, an accelerated pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and losing consciousness.
- Heat exhaustion: an individual experiencing heat exhaustion may display the following symptoms – increased sweating, cold, pale, or clammy skin, a fast or weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, tiredness, muscle weakness, dizziness, headache, and loss of consciousness.
- Heat cramps: an individual experiencing unusually heavy sweating during exercise, muscle pain, or spasms may be suffering from heat cramps.
- Sunburn: this heat-related illness appears in the form of painful red and warm skin, and may even produce blisters on the skin.
- Heat rash: an individual has a heat rash when clusters of small red blisters appear somewhere on the body.
How To Treat Heat-Related Illnesses
Each type of heat-related illness mentioned above requires a different form of intervention.
- Heat stroke: if an individual is showing signs of heat stroke, someone should immediately call emergency services. The individual should then be moved to a cooler location while waiting for a medical team to arrive. A helper should assist in lowering the individual’s body temperature by applying cool cloths or helping them to a cool bath.
- Heat exhaustion: an individual experiencing heat exhaustion should immediately refrain from physical activity and relocate to a cooler space. Additionally, their clothing should be loosened and cool, wet clothing should be placed on the body, or they may be helped to a cold bath. They should also sip cool water to assist in lowering the temperature of the body while staying hydrated. An individual should seek immediate medical attention if the symptoms worsen or last longer than an hour or if they begin to throw up.
- Heat cramps: those athletes that begin to experience heat cramps should immediately stop physical activity and move to a cooler location. They should hydrate with water or a sports drink as they wait for the cramps to subside. If an individual experiences symptoms for more than an hour, are on a low sodium diet, or has heart problems, they should seek medical attention.
- Sunburn: it is important that individuals that have sunburns stay out of the sun until the skin heals. Pain may be relieved by applying cool cloths to affected areas or by taking a cool bath. Individuals should also moisturize their sunburned areas and keep from bursting any blisters.
- Heat rash: this heat-related illness may be remedied by keeping the skin cool and dry and using skin powders to soothe the rash.
Protecting Injured Students’ Rights
Whether it is on playing fields or gyms, a school’s top priority should be their student-athletes health and safety. When a school is negligent in its legal obligation to keep student-athletes safe, the organization may be held responsible.
Even if a release or waiver was signed before the activity, an experienced lawyer can offer advice on how someone may choose to proceed with a case. Every case is unique, but the wording of the release and how it is executed before athletic participation are just two pieces a lawyer will look at in a student’s personal injury case.
At Panter, Panter & Sampedro, we treat our clients like family and many of us are parents. We understand how important it is to keep our children and families safe. Speak to an experienced attorney today at (305) 662-6178.