The prevalence and degree of dehydration in rural South African forestry workers.
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South African forestry workers are predisposed to dehydration due to the heavy physical activity they perform in impermeable regulation safety clothing in hot and often humid environments where the availability of a variety of suitable fluids at reasonable temperatures is limited. As dehydration reduces both physical and mental capacity the potential consequences include decreased productivity and an increased risk for injury. The aim of this cross sectional observational study was to determine the prevalence and severity of dehydration in rural forestry workers in both winter (minimum and maximum daily temperatures 3-22°C) and autumn (minimum and maximum daily temperatures 14-27°C). The convenience sample included 103 workers in autumn (Nelspruit, n=64 males, n=39 females, mean age 37.32 years, mean BMI 22.3 kg/m2) and 79 in winter (Richmond, n=68 males, n=11 females, mean age 25.85 years, mean BMI 22.2 kg/m2). The sample included chainsaw operators, chainsaw operator assistants, debarkers and stackers. The risk of heat illness was moderate in Nelspruit (average daily temperature 21.1°C 67% rh) and low in Richmond (average daily temperature 17.0°C 39% rh). The prevalence of dehydration was determined by urine specific gravity (USG) measurements. Percent loss of body weight in the course of the shift was used to determine the severity of dehydration. In Nelspruit 43% (n=43) and in Richmond 47% (n=37) of the forestry workers arrived at work dehydrated (USG>1.020 g/ml). Pre break this had increased to 49% (n=49) in Nelspruit and 55% (n=33) in Richmond. By the end of shift the number of dehydrated forestry workers had significantly increased to 64% (n=64, p≤0.001) in Nelspruit and 63% (n=42, p=0.043) in Richmond. A minimum of 21% (n=2) in Nelspruit and 23% (n=15) in Richmond of the forestry workers had lost more than 2% of their body weight which could significantly decrease work capacity and work output as well as mental and cognitive ability. Dehydration was not related to season (winter/autumn), gender or job category. In Nelspruit 23% (n=23) and in Richmond 13% (n=10) arrived at work overhydrated (USG<1.013 g/ml). Pre break this had decreased to 14% (n=14) in Nelspruit and 10% (n=6) in Richmond. By the end of shift 4% (n=4) in Nelspruit and 2% (n=1) in Richmond had remained overhydrated and without correcting for fluid and food intake, 5% (n=5) had gained over 2% of their body weight in Nelspruit while none had gained weight in Richmond. Overhydration was not related to season (winter/autumn), gender or job category. Physical symptoms at the end of shift included tiredness (24%), toothache (13%) and headaches (10%) although these did not correlate to end of shift USG readings (p=0.221). The fluid requirements for male workers (n=8) who did not eat or drink across the shift was 439 ml per hour. The contractors were unaware of how much fluid should be supplied to workers and how much fluid they actually supplied. The only fluid provided by the contractors was water at the ambient air temperature which was the main source of fluid for the majority. Some forestry workers brought a limited variety of other fluids including amahewu, tea and cold drinks to work. At least 40% of the work force investigated, started their shift already compromised to work to capacity (USG>1.020 g/ml). The prevalence of dehydration had increased by the break emphasizing the need to begin drinking early on in the shift. The majority of forestry workers were dehydrated at the end of the shift. A significant proportion was dehydrated to the extent (>2%) that both work capacity and mental ability would be significantly compromised. A select group of forestry workers were drinking excessive amounts of fluid and were therefore susceptible to potentially fatal dilutional hyponatremia especially as water was the primary source of fluid. Dehydration in both autumn and winter was identified as being a significant but preventable risk. As a consequence of overhydration, a small group of forestry workers may be susceptible to dilutional hyponatremia. Fluid intake guidelines for males of 450 ml per hour appeared to be safe and were within the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine. Fluid guidelines for females need investigation.