Heatstroke Awareness: Tips for Contractors to Stay Cool at the Job Site

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Construction activity spikes from May through September. It’s when a contractor’s work plate is full, particularly with new builds and home renovations. This activity coincides with the hottest months of the year around the country.

Construction workers who work in extreme heat are susceptible to heat-related illnesses (HRIs) and injuries. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) defines heat stress “as the combination of a worker’s physical activity, environmental factors, and clothing that results in an increase in the body’s heat storage, known as the net heat load.” The physiological response to heat stress is heat strain, “which occurs when the body attempts to increase heat loss to the environment in order to maintain a stable body temperature,” says NIOSH. To function normally, core body temperature must be kept around 98.6°F. Heat stress can cause unrelieved heat strain, which increases the risk of HRIs. Heatstroke, heat exhaustion, fainting, heat cramps, and heat rash are all examples of HRIs.

CDC: Construction Industry Accounted for One-Third of Heat Exposure Deaths

Construction workers accounted for about one-third of occupational deaths from heat exposure over a 25-year period (1992-2016), according to the most recent figures from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). The CFOI found that 285 deaths occurred among construction workers, who make up only 6% of the U.S. workforce. About 78% of these fatalities occurred during the summer months of June, July, and August.

Extra measures are therefore necessary as temperatures rise to help keep contractors cool on construction sites. Following are several safety tips, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), to help prevent heatstroke and heat exhaustion and keep your contractors safe.

Screen Construction Workers for Heat Tolerance

  • Determine previous HRIs, a lack of fitness, and other factors that may limit workers’ ability to tolerate physical activity in hot environments.
  • Advise workers to consult with their health care provider regarding any medications or underlying medical conditions that may impair their ability to tolerate heat and physical activity.

Limit Exposure

  • Make certain that workers take appropriate rest breaks to cool down and hydrate.
  • Have workers wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing to work.
  • Schedule hot jobs for the cooler part of the day, and/or alternate (not consecutive) days, if possible.
  • Schedule hot routine maintenance work for cooler times of the year whenever possible.
  • Provide rest and recovery areas that are cool, shaded, or air-conditioned.
  • Allow workers to immerse their hands and forearms in a large container (a cooler, large bucket, or plastic tub) of cool water, which reduces skin and core temperature.
  • Increase the crew size to reduce heat exposure for each contractor and to allow the job to continue while some crew members rest.
  • Require employees to stop working if they experience heat-related discomfort.
  • Assign lighter work and longer, more frequent rest periods to new workers.
  • Change work/rest schedules to allow for more downtime. Reduce work hours and increase rest time as the temperature, humidity, and amount of sunlight rise; when there is no movement of air; if protective gear or clothing is worn; and for physically demanding jobs.

Improve Heat Tolerance

  • Create a strategy for acclimating workers to heat.
  • Increase your time in hot environments gradually over 7 to 14 days.
  • New workers should be limited to 20% of their time in the heat on the first day, with no more than a 20% increase on each subsequent day.
  • Experienced workers should be limited to 50% heat exposure on the first day, 60% on the second day, and 80% on the third day. Full-time work in the heat is permitted beginning on the fourth day.
  • Supervise new employees closely for the first 14 days or until they are fully acclimated.
  • Recognize that a few days away from work can cause a loss of acclimatization.

Encourage Water Consumption

  • Determine how much water will be required and who will obtain and monitor water supplies.
  • Workers in the heat for 2 hours and engaged in moderate work activities should drink 1 cup (8 oz.) of water every 15–20 minutes. If workers are sweating profusely for several hours, they should drink sports drinks containing balanced electrolytes.
  • Provide individual drinking cups, not communal cups.

Develop a Heat Alert System

  • Train all program participants on what to do if the National Weather Service issues an “Excessive Heat Warning.” Concentrate on injury and illness prevention, recognizing HRI symptoms and first-aid procedures.
  • Instruct managers and supervisors in writing to ensure that each site has adequate supplies of cool liquids, first-aid supplies, cooling equipment (such as ice packs, iced bedsheets, or a child’s wading pool that can be quickly filled with cool water), and cool rest areas.

For additional information on keeping construction workers safe during the hot summer months, visit OSHA.

Sources: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, NIOSH, CDC, OSHA