As a new school semester begins and student athletes return to the field, New Jersey’s legislators have turned to the task of ensuring our children’s safety. Earlier this January, Governor Murphy signed into law two pieces of legislation intended to help protect students from one of the most common, yet often-overlooked, forms of serious athletic injury.
Many parents of student athletes very reasonably worry about contact sport injuries like sprains and bone fractures, or the potentially life-altering effects of traumatic brain injury and concussions. However, another type of serious injury is all too easily overlooked. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can affect even completely healthy young athletes with no history of heart problems, and if not treated properly, these conditions can result in brain damage or cardiac arrest.
Unfortunately, a lack of proper training provided to coaches, instructors, and other adults responsible for supervising students undertaking athletic activity too easily results in the symptoms of heat exhaustion (which can develop into heat stroke if not treated promptly) being missed or ignored. In gym classes, less athletically-inclined students are encouraged to try harder, and student athletes at games and practices are pressured to put forth their best effort. Students who seem to be struggling may be urged to “toughen up” or push through the difficulty. This attitude, combined with high temperatures and humidity, can be a deadly combination.
Heat exhaustion occurs when a person becomes dehydrated and loses the ability to regulate their body temperature, due to extreme external conditions, physical exertion, or both. High humidity makes it harder for the body to cool itself by sweating, amplifying the effects of hot weather. A person wearing dark colors, helmets, and padded gear (like some athletic uniforms) is even more likely to become dangerously overheated. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, headache, irritability, weakness, and elevated body temperature. Without proper treatment to bring down the victim’s body temperature, the condition may progress to heat stroke, a serious medical condition that can result in seizure, cardiac arrest, and organ failure.
Despite the severe danger that heat-related illness poses for students engaging in physical exertion in hot and humid weather, a lack of proper safety training provided to coaches and teachers exposes young people to unnecessary risk. In September 2018, five students at Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack suffered heat exhaustion after being required to run laps outdoors during gym class while the outdoor temperature exceeded 90 degrees. At least one of these teens was hospitalized with heat stroke. Just a few weeks earlier, another New Jersey native, 19-year-old Braeden Bradforth, died of heat stroke following a football conditioning test at his community college on August 1st.
In an effort to avoid preventable tragedies like these in the future, New Jersey has recently adopted two new laws to protect student athletes. One of these laws, S2443, mandates the adoption of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s “Heat Participation Policy” by all member districts. This policy must address the scheduling of competitions and practices with respect to heat and humidity levels, and when excessive heat and humidity require cancelling these events. The policy must also outline how to balance periods of activity during practices with breaks for rest and hydration. Each district is required to buy a WetBulb Globe Temperature tool (WBGT) to measure heat stress at the practice location – a measurement that encompasses temperature, humidity, cloud coverage, sun angle, and wind speed.
The other piece of legislation, S2494, requires the establishment of emergency action plans in case the measures outlined in S2443 fail to protect a student. This law requires that districts with students in any of grades six through 12 develop and implement a plan of action for responding to serious sports-related injuries. These plans must be developed with consultation from emergency medical services personnel, and be individually tailored to a particular activity site. With these plans established, coaches and educators will have clear procedures to follow in the event that any students suffers a serious injury on the athletic field, including heat illness.
With these regulations in place, it becomes that much easier to prove when a child is injured because a coach or teacher was negligent. Some sports injuries are expected hazards of athletic activity, but others – like many cases of heat exhaustion and heat stroke – happen because the adult supervising the students failed to take reasonable measures to prevent foreseeable harm. In these cases, injured students may be able to seek compensation for the harm they suffered, including medical expenses, lost scholarships, permanent impairment, and pain and suffering. In the worst cases, the district may be liable for the wrongful death of a student. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll need an experienced personal injury attorney on your side to protect your rights.