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Trainers use wet bulb thermometers to keep high school athletes safe in the heat

Grant distributing 5,000 devices across U.S.
Posted at 6:54 PM, Jun 16, 2022

COPLEY TOWNSHIP, Ohio — When temperatures hover over or near 90 degrees, as Northeast Ohio experienced on Wednesday and Thursday, it becomes a priority for athletic trainers to keep high school athletes as cool as possible during their summer workouts.

"When it gets this hot, what should we be doing? Obviously, proper hydration. We use cooling towels and ice," said Mark Stefanik, an athletic trainer for Akron Children's Hospital and Copley High School. "And then, we also have an immersion tub that we can use at our disposal."

Copley is among a growing number of schools that are also using wet bulb globe thermometers, considered to be an important tool for minimizing heat-related illness during outdoor activities and determining if practices should be modified or canceled.

The thermometers measure the heat stress in direct sunlight, accounting for temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Earlier this year, the NFHS Foundation announced a $1.5 million grant program to distribute 5,000 wet bulb globe thermometers to high schools across the country.

Akron Children's Hospital received 14 of the thermometers and gave them to schools that have contracts with the hospital for athletic training services.

Stefanik demonstrated how the thermometer works by setting it up around noon on the Copley High School football field.

"You open up the gauge to allow wind to push through. You click it on its little holder, and there's a wind vane that it will take. You turn it on and kind of just let it do its thing," he said.

Within a few minutes, the wet bulb globe temperature began to fluctuate between 87 and 90 degrees. When it went over 90, a red light flashed indicating the weather conditions were in the red or "danger zone."

Stefanik can also set it for audible alarms and links temperature updates to his cell phone.

When the wet bulb temperatures reach 87 to 89 degrees, it's recommended that practice time be limited to two hours and that athletes take frequent water breaks.

At 90 degrees, practice should be limited to one hour and no protective equipment should be worn. There should also be 20 minutes of rest breaks during the hour.

When the WBGT hits 92 degrees, workouts should be canceled.

News 5 meteorologist Katie McGraw said WBGT readings are a good way for coaches and trainers to make decisions on practices, adding it's "more inclusive" than looking at the heat index, which measures just the heat and the humidity and is calculated in the shade.

"Basically, if you get a wet bulb temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, even people that can handle the heat— even real athletic people— they will struggle in that kind of environment," McGraw said.

Stefanik considers the thermometer a very important safety tool, and with many more hot days to come over the summer, he'll keep a close watch on the athletes and wet bulb globe temperature.

"I think everybody wants to be able to go out and practice. Everybody wants to participate in their sport, but I don't think there's a single administrator, coach, athletic trainer, parent, even the kids, that want to do it in an unsafe environment."