Construction, Heat illness

Construction Heat Stress: How to Beat Rising Temperatures

Construction work is labor intensive and most often it is done in non-climate-controlled spaces. Studies show that 50% to 70% of most outdoor fatalities occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments. With temperatures soaring into the triple digits, construction workers face threats of extreme heat and heat-related illnesses and injuries on job sites. In response, construction companies are developing and implementing plans to mitigate risks and protect workers from rising temperatures. 

The following should be considered by industry leaders and safety and health professionals when taking steps to protect workers from the adverse health effects of working in the heat.

Know the facts

Considering the Department of Labor’s recent announcement of a new heat prevention campaign and enforcement program to protect workers, construction business owners should proactively review OSHA standards to remain compliant and use available industry tools to prevent and manage heat-related illnesses.

Business owners struggling to determine the appropriate safety plan, including heat safety, for their individualized sector, geographic location, workload intensity and even workforce demographics can use OSHA’s no-cost and confidential on-site consultation program. The program brings consultants from state agencies or universities to work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice for compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing and improving safety and health programs.

By staying up to date on new regulations and using readily available tools, industry leaders are a step closer to preventing on-the-job heat stress.

Develop a plan

A culture of heat safety begins with education. To mitigate employee risk, industry leaders should inform teams year-round about measures to prevent and recognize heat illness, including day-to-day or even hour-to-hour communications and monitoring. 

Heat safety plans can involve environmental monitoring tools like the OSHA-NIOSH heat safety app, which can help leaders gauge the temperature, humidity, and heat index data based on the project’s unique location. The OSHA-NIOSH screening tool can become an efficient and practical resource for heat safety. However, safety and health professionals should not rely on heat index alone for the most accurate hazard assessment. Wearable monitors are another tool to consider which alert workers of risk factors like heart rate that may indicate a risk of heat illness.

Heat acclimatization is an important strategy to keep your workforce safe as temperatures continue to rise. Safety professionals must work with crews to gradually increase exposure to the elements over one to two weeks. This allows those who are new to the crew or those returning from an extended absence to ease into hot conditions.

Shifting work schedules to earlier in the day to avoid peak temperatures is a popular strategy. Employers can also provide cool areas, such as job site trailers for resting at breaks or mealtimes. Body cooling stations should include cold, hydrating drinks, coolers full of ice, and cooling towels to help the body to cool internally and externally.

Practice heat safety

As safety professionals, we must find “cool” ways of addressing heat stress and preventing heat-related illnesses. Fluids and hydration play a key role in heat safety. Supervisors should encourage and remind workers to take water breaks and drink electrolytes. At Skanska, we have creatively worked to make heat safety “cool” by providing electrolyte ice pops on job sites on hot days. We found that handing out these “treats” are greatly appreciated by the workers, helps with muscle recovery and keeps safety top of mind for all.

Evaporative bandanas are a great way to put safety into action. These towels and bandanas can be soaked in cooling water and handed to workers at cooling stations throughout the day. These bandanas can help cool down workers and can stay cool for one to four hours.

Good heat stress/illness prevention takes into consideration more breaks, a cool place to rest, time for heat acclimation, and the availability of fluids. Construction leaders need to be mindful of the dangers that come from heat, humidity, and the lack of on-the-job experience. With those factors in mind, the tools are available for every jobsite to have a safe summer.

Reggie Asare is director of environmental health and safety at Skanska, one of the world’s leading project development and construction groups, where he oversees the EHS program for building operations for Texas.