After last year’s deadly season, when several high school football players died from exhaustive heat stress, athletic associations across the country are taking steps to protect student athletes.
Georgia has led the nation in heat-related deaths among football players over the past 15 years. In March, the Georgia High School Association adopted a battery of protective policies, including requiring schools to take heat and humidity into account using the “wet bulb temperature” method when determining practice intensity.
“There has been an increase in incidents over the last 10 to 15 years in the South and Southeast in particular,” Jeff Hopp, Head Athletic Trainer at and the President of the Georgia Athletic Trainers Association, said. “A large part of that is due to the fact that athletes spend the majority of time in air conditioned facilities on the computer playing video games so they are not acclimated to the heat.”
Whether you are an athlete or not, Hopp stresses that it is important for all ages to get out into the weather and gradually get use to the heat and getting active. It takes 10 to 14 days for acclimation, Hopp said. Students should have a gradual increase in activity over couple weeks to get to point where they are able to experience full activity.
Since 2006, at least 20 high school football players have died from heat stroke, according to the University of North Carolina’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found that heat illness is the leading cause of death and disability among American high school athletes, sickening more than 9,000 annually, with football players at highest risk.
“Two things are absolutely crucial: getting acclimated to heat and good nutrition and especially good hydration.” This means drinking prior to practices and understanding the amount of water you need. Drink all day long. “We tell our athletes to drink a minimum of a gallon of water each day,” Hopp said.
The new policies for Georgia sports reflect the need for an acclimation period and follow a three-year study commissioned by the GHSA and completed by University of Georgia:
- Each player must participate in five days of practices in only helmets, t-shirts and shorts before going to pads in August. Practices without pads, which may begin no sooner than July 25, are limited to two hours.
- Practice in pads began Aug. 1 and are limited to three hours.
- All schools must use wet-bulb temperatures, and not heat index, to determine when excessive heat and humidity call for limiting or canceling practices.
- Rest time should involve both unlimited hydration intake (water or electrolyte drinks) and rest without any activity involved.
- For football, helmets should be removed during rest time.
- The site of the rest time should be a “cooling zone” and not in direct sunlight.
- When the WBGT reading is over 86: ice towels and spray bottles filled with ice water should be available at the “cooling zone” and cold immersion tubs must be available for practices for any player showing early signs of heat illness.
“It’s honestly not much of a change for us (at Marietta High School),” Hopp said. “We’ve been using a very similar set of guidelines for the school.”
The wet-bulb guidelines apply to all outdoor sports. At Marietta, they have even opted to have the standards apply to the Marching Band.
Schools violating the new policies face fines of up to $1,000.
The cost for implementing the new policies is “nominal,“ Hopp said. “It can cost a little bit more money when looking at initial set up, some schools have to create a cooling area, get shade. It’s not thousands and thousands of dollars. What this takes more than anything is planning.”
Hopp stresses that while wet-bulb temperatures don’t sound very high, conditions can quickly become unbearable when it is the afternoon on an August day. “A lot of schools will be modifying practice or moving it to a different time. That's what takes the most planning.”
The wet-bulb globe temperature reading is a composite temperature used to estimate the effect of air temperature, humidity and solar radiation on the human body. The reading is expressed in degrees, but should not be equated with degrees of air temperature. For example, a WBGT reading of 92 is somewhat comparable to a Heat Index reading of 104-105 degrees.