Dealing with Heat Stress: Cooler Heads Really Do Prevail
Everyone knows you should keep a cool head in an emergency. Dr. Stephen Cheung, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics, is taking that advice very seriously. His research on how protective clothing, heat stress and exercise performance interact will offer real evidence to back up the adage.
Emergency workers such as firefighters and hazardous waste disposal workers obviously face extreme occupational heat stress. They have to perform physically demanding jobs while wearing heavy, cumbersome protective gear. And, of course, they need to stay mentally alert while doing so.
Body temperatures can rise due to a hot environment or physical activity, or a combination of the two. Either way, having our body temperature stay greatly above normal for an extended period (a condition called hyperthermia) can harm several of our bodies’ systems, affecting, for example, our nerves' and muscle tissues' response, the blood flow to our brains, and cognitive function, or our ability to think.
Cheung’s preliminary research has already shown that cooling the head and neck, even while maintaining core hyperthermia in the body, can significantly moderate the body’s reaction to heat stress. His investigations will now compare how this localized cooling affects peoples’ physical and mental responses to changes in their core temperature.
Specifically, Cheung’s research will look at how manipulating what is termed “regional temperature” in this way stacks up against manipulating central temperature in how they affect core body temperature. He will also take a close look at the relative importance of physical and mental responses to regional cooling.
Cheung’s research results will ultimately help in the design and development of enhanced technology, training and occupational safety for those people who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.