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Heat Can Be a Construction Worker Killer

Stokes McIntyre | July 15, 2022

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Summertime is in full force, and for those in the construction field, it's one of the most productive seasons. But it's also one of the most dangerous, especially for crew members who are regularly exposed to the increased temperatures.

Professionals who regularly work outside are at risk of suffering heat strokes, dehydration, exhaustion, rashes, and cramping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 43 work-related deaths due to environmental heat exposure in 2019. 1

"Depending on what part of the country you are, the summer can be one of the dangerous periods," said James Downey, senior safety manager for Pankow. "But the good news is that illness from exposure to heat is preventable."

The key, said Mr. Downey, is to work with project leadership to ensure a strong plan is in place.

"Occupational exposure to heat is something that everyone should take seriously and must remain an important topic," he said. "For example, at Pankow, we're focused on continuously improving our efforts to protect workers."

One way that Mr. Downey and the rest of the Pankow management team ensure that their frontline workers are protected is to define roles, responsibilities, and processes.

"Make sure that someone on the team has the primary responsibility of sharing weather updates and heat advisories," he said. "And the information has to be shared regularly and in a way that the same information gets to everyone—and in a timely manner, not hours or days later."

Protect Your Workers from the Heat

To properly protect workers, updates need to not only include warnings but education on symptoms to look out for and solutions—where the shaded areas are, reminders to hydrate and take breaks, what the break schedule is, and to let team members know who to inform if they begin to feel ill.

The Pankow team has incorporated MindForge's communication and educational platform to share these updates and encourage responsible self-care. The platform's app can be downloaded onto an individual's cell phone free of charge, allowing for updates to be received in real time by team members.

"Because almost everyone has a cell phone these days, it makes it easy for frontline workers to get information and updates, which makes them safer," Mr. Downey said.

Training is also vital. Most outdoor fatalities—up to 70 percent—occur in the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body needs to build a tolerance to the heat gradually over time.

"The process of building tolerance to heat is called heat acclimatization," said Mr. Downey. "Lack of acclimatization represents a major risk factor for heat illness or even a fatality."

Occupational risk factors for heat illness include heavy physical activity, warm or hot environmental conditions, not hydrating properly, and wearing clothing that holds in body heat.

"In a construction environment, you need to wear appropriate clothing—some of which, like solid work boots and long pants and shirts, can be a recipe for disaster in the heat," Mr. Downey said. "So, team members have to do what they can. We recommend that frontline workers wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing that reflects the sun away, get some cooling devices, and take a look at your safety vest. There are some that have air movement and are a bit more breathable. That's a better option in the summer."

Supervisors and safety professionals also need to make regular rounds on a jobsite.

"As you walk the job, ask folks how they are doing," suggested Mr. Downey. "Ask them when was the last time they stopped to take a break? Walking the jobsite will also help you make sure the water is close to the work zone. If it's far, the guys won't stop for water breaks because they care so much about production."

This work ethic—which makes the frontline workers amazingly efficient—also puts them at risk.

"The culture of the construction industry is that the guys are very proud of how hard they are working and how tough they are," said Mr. Downey. "But everyone needs to take breaks and protect their health. You have to make it okay for them to hydrate, take a moment, and then come back to work refreshed. It actually makes them more productive."

Watch for Heat Illness

It is critical that companies encourage team members to look out for one another.

"It's really helpful because a superintendent may not know everyone as well as the crew members know each other," said Mr. Downey. "They work next to each other every day, have lunch together, and sometimes carpool together. If anyone is going to notice that Robert is acting different, it's his crew member. They'll be able to point out that Robert is always joking around but is now being really quiet."

Once a team member has received assistance, it's important to keep in mind what time of the day it is.

"I've seen situations where a person was exhibiting signs of heat illness and we've gotten him shade, water, and sent him home to rest," said Mr. Downey. "But if it's 4 p.m., you are sending someone home in a hot car during traffic hour—it's not necessarily the best course of action. What if his air conditioner isn't working well? Sometimes, having them rest longer before sending them home makes more sense or seeing if someone else can drive him or pick him up."

Learning the symptoms of the two most dangerous forms of heat illness—heat exhaustion and heat stroke—will help your teams understand what to look for and be prepared in case someone gets ill. Heat exhaustion is the heat system failing, and heatstroke happens after it fails. Symptoms of heat exhaustion or illness include the following.

  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fast heart rate
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Muscle cramps

Take the following steps to cool down.

  • Get out of the heat.
  • Ideally, find air conditioning or shade.
  • Drink water slowly.
  • Remove tight clothing or extra layers.
  • Lie or sit back with wet towels over your big blood vessels in the neck or armpits.

Heatstroke happens when the body's heat control center fails and the body's temperature rises above 104°F. As the body temperature climbs over 102°F, the skin stops sweating—beginning a vicious cycle. Get immediate medical attention if the following occurs.

  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Possible seizures

Call Emergency Medical Services (EMS) immediately! While waiting for EMS, take immediate action to cool the overheated person.

  • Get the person into the shade or indoors.
  • Remove excess clothing.
  • Cool the person with whatever means available—with water, sponge with cool water, fan while misting with cool water, or place ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person's head, neck, armpits, and groin.

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1 "43 Work-Related Deaths Due to Environmental Heat Exposure in 2019," The Economics Daily, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 1, 2021.