UNION, NJ – Union High School athletic coaches are acutely aware of the risk of heat-related illnesses and deaths as athletes began showing up for practice this week.

“We are proactive in informing both parents and athletes about the risks involved with heat issues,” said Athletic Director Linda Ionta.  “Our athletic trainer and coaches work together to make adjustments to practices to ensure the safety of our athletes.”

“We make a very conscious effort to ensure these athletes have what they need to be safe,” said district athletic trainer Meg Berry.

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Berry said during the heat acclimatization period, defined as the initial 14 consecutive days of preseason practice, guidelines are followed to enhance exercise heat tolerance and the ability to exercise safely and effectively in warm or hot conditions.

“We adhere to a strict protocol,” said Berry.  She said during this acclimatization period, a gradual introduction of gear is introduced for football players and soccer and field hockey goalies. 

Berry said during the first two days of preseason football practice, helmets are the only protective gear worn.  Shoulder pads are added for days 3 - 5, and on day 6, players can wear all of their gear, weather permitting.  Berry also said there is limited contact during the first week of practice.  Full contact begins during the second week.

Berry checks the heat index (air temperature and relative humidity) every morning and makes recommendations to the coaches accordingly, and activity is altered or eliminated.  “Simple things like moving from turf to grass makes a big difference,” said Berry.  “We can reduce practice time or move it from early morning or later in the day if necessary.” 

A ‘Green Flag’ heat index calls for ample amounts of water at regular intervals and ice down towels for cooling.

A heat index within the ‘Yellow Flag’ range require ample water, ice down towels, removal of unnecessary equipment and reduced time outside.

In addition to those steps, a ‘Red Flag’ heat index includes altering uniforms where feasible, allowing for t-shirt and shorts changes, reducing practice length and removal of helmets and other possible equipment.

All outside activity is ceased if the heat index falls within the ‘Black Flag’ range.

Berry said coaches are trained to identify the signs of heat exhaustion.  If necessary, athletes can sit in the room temperature whirlpools and even be put on a hydration schedule.   “The coaches here are great,” said Berry.  “They are not going to say to a player, ‘get out there and suck it up’.  They will err on the side of caution.”