July 26, 2023

Heat Policy Innovation Hub Offers Game Plan to Protect High School Athletes

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

With many high schools kicking off football practice next week, coaches across much of the United States must prepare not only to lead training sessions, but also to protect players’ health amid record-setting heat.  

A Duke University policy brief released today offers a comprehensive strategy for high school athletic associations to ensure the health and well-being of student-athletes as they train and compete in high temperatures. The brief from the Heat Policy Innovation Hub—a program of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability—targets improvements in measuring heat stress, activity modification guidelines and emergency action plans that can be implemented across sports and venues.

“Young athletes are especially vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, and the risk of exposure is growing due to the increasing frequency of extreme temperatures resulting from climate change, like we have seen this summer,” said Jordan Clark, a postdoctoral associate at the Nicholas Institute who wrote the brief. “Our recommendations build on existing research to lay out a game plan for high school athletic associations to strengthen their abilities to protect student-athletes.”

Clark makes five specific policy recommendations for associations to enact:

  • Implement environmental heat monitoring using a heat stress index appropriate for the local climate, such as wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT). Scientific devices for on-site measurements should be available with staff training to ensure measurement precision. 
  • Develop sport-specific guidelines based on heat stress levels that outline safe practices for hydration, work-to-rest ratios, clothing, equipment use and heat acclimatization. 
  • Incorporate venue-specific heat protocols into existing emergency action plans. 
  • Institute universal application of heat policies across all sports and activities, including indoor sports and extracurricular activities. 
  • Support full implementation by pursuing funding opportunities for equipment, such as WBGT meters, and establishing incentives for compliance among member schools. 

As Clark notes in the brief, existing heat policies vary widely from state to state. Several associations, such as in Georgia and North Carolina, require measurements of WBGT to determine any limits needed to remain safe during outdoor athletic activity. Many other state associations simply recommend WBGT, or have policies based on the Heat Index or other basic metrics that do not account for factors such as wind speed or sunlight. Most associations also have limited mechanisms to ensure that member schools are fully complying with established policies.

While the brief’s recommendations are targeted specifically at high school sports, Clark writes that they can be applied to other youth physical activities.

“What works for safeguarding high school football players from extreme heat also works for marching band students, summer campers and elementary and middle school athletes,” he said.

Launched in June, the Heat Policy Innovation Hub is a first-of-its-kind program in the United States that brings together scientists and communities to develop and deploy heat policy solutions that could ultimately save lives. Many of the hub’s early projects, including Clark’s brief, address planning and preparedness.

In addition to its policy work, the hub is developing resources to help educate the public on the dangers of extreme heat and how to stay safe. For example, a downloadable infographic available in English and Spanish outlines the signs of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke and how best to respond to each. 

Clark and other Duke experts affiliated with the Heat Policy Innovation Hub are available to speak with journalists and decision makers interested in learning more about extreme heat and potential solutions. Contact ni-comm@duke.edu.