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Extended excessive heat brings warnings about heat-related illness, death

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WASHINGTON – As wildfires burned in northern Arizona, health officials were warning Monday about the danger of excessive temperatures that were baking Phoenix and the southern half of the state.

The National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning Monday for Phoenix and southern Arizona, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration urged outdoor workers to drink water and be aware of the signs of heat-related illnesses.

Temperatures will linger close to 110 degrees for the next several days in the Valley, with highs of 111 degrees expected on the Fourth of July, according to the weather service. Some areas of the state will be even hotter – in Lake Havasu City, for example, temperatures are expected to hit 115 degrees at least twice this week.

People should not treat the heat lightly, officials said.

“Heat is a silent killer,” said National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, in a conference call Monday.

David Michaels, the assistant labor secretary in charge of OSHA, said that 658 people die on average annually from heat-related illnesses. Construction and farm workers are at greatest risk for heat-related illnesses and death, he said during the conference call.

Michaels recommended that workers drink water every 15 minutes, rest in the shade, and wear a hat and light-colored clothing. They should also learn the signs of heat-related illnesses and watch out for fellow workers.

“We suggest every worker work in a buddy system,” Michaels said.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the two most common illnesses, he said. Signs of heat stroke include profuse sweating, strokes, confusion, fainting and red, hot, dry skin.

Michaels said that while many focus on the risks heat poses to children, pets and the elderly, workers are vulnerable, too – and there’s an app for that.

Michaels said workers can download a free iPhone, Blackberry or Android application from OSHA that calculates the heat index for a work site, displays the risk level of working there, and suggests preventive measures to protect workers.

Jonathan Jacobs, a spokesman for the Phoenix Fire Department, said the department gets more calls for heat-related illnesses once temperatures begin to spike.

In 2011, the department received 1,152 calls for heat-related illnesses, and in 2012 the department received 1,260 calls, Jacobs said. He estimates that the department has received 15 to 18 calls a day for heat-related illnesses recently.

But Jacobs said it is difficult to pin down an exact number since many of the illnesses that may be heat-related – dizziness, weakness, fatigue – may not be classified as heat-related calls.

“You can be in really good shape,” Jacobs said, “but when it’s hot out and you lose a lot of fluid … it just shuts you down.”

In the greater Phoenix area, churches, senior centers and other community organizations have joined together to form the Heat Relief Network. There are over 80 locations in the Valley for people to get water or get indoors during excessive heat.

Tim Cole, the homeless programs coordinator for the city of Phoenix, said heat-related illnesses and deaths can still affect Arizonans, even though they may have grown complacent.

“It’s second nature to us (Arizonans) as to how we deal with it,” Cole said.

On the other hand, he said, Arizona residents and officials are prepared for the heat unlike heat waves that affect other areas – like Chicago – which may injure and kill many because the residents are not used to it.

Cole also said many people are dying from heat in their homes because they don’t have air conditioning. In order to combat that, the Heat Relief Network is promoting wellness checks, where people check in on neighbors or friends to make sure they’re OK. If someone’s air conditioning isn’t working, they can be taken to a relief center.

But for workers, Michaels reiterated OSHA’s campaign slogan: Water, rest and shade.