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What’s rhabdomyolysis, and how can you reduce the risk?

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Whenever muscle damage occurs – whether it’s the result of a work-related incident, heat exposure, overuse or other cause – rhabdomyolysis can follow. Also called “rhabdo,” the condition develops when damaged or dead muscles break down and release cell contents into the blood, according to NIOSH. Once released into the bloodstream, proteins and electrolytes can cause organ damage.

Rhabdo can cause kidney damage or failure, dangerous heart rhythms (arrhythmias), seizures, nausea and vomiting, and permanent disability, among other health issues. The condition can even result in death.

NIOSH notes that rhabdo can affect anyone, but some workers are at a greater risk, including those who work in hot environments and/or perform strenuous physical tasks. Some of these groups include firefighters (both structural and wildland), police officers, farm and construction workers, and military service members. Common work-related causes of rhabdo include:
High body temperature caused by working outdoors in hot environments and in or near hot processes, or wearing personal protective equipment that can trap in body heat.
Overuse of muscles by individuals who have physically demanding jobs that involve high levels of physical exertion or participate in high-intensity workouts or physical fitness tests.
Damage to muscles resulting from traumatic injuries, such as falls from height or car crashes.

Symptoms of rhabdo include muscle cramps, aches or pains that are more severe than expected, dark urine, and feeling weak or tired. These can appear any time after a muscle injury, NIOSH notes, adding that for some people, symptoms might not start to appear until several days after the initial injury.

Employers can help protect workers from developing rhabdo by:

  • Having a heat stress management policy in place.
  • Allowing workers to seek medical care when they have symptoms. Let them know they can return to work once they’re cleared by their doctor.
  • Encouraging workers to take sick leave when ill.

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