In some areas of the country, July, August and even September can be very, VERY hot months. Research says construction workers are the most susceptible. According to the CPWR, construction workers accounted for 36% of heat-related deaths in 1992-2016 even though they only comprise 6% of the total workforce. It is not surprising that cement masons (10 times more likely) and roofers (seven times) were the most susceptible to heat-related death compared to others in the already extremely dangerous category of construction.
Not just a humane issue, heat-related injury has become a political topic. In July of 2023, the President announced that the U.S. Department of Labor would be increasing its policing of heat-related protections. Though the announcement did not go into specifics, knowing and acting in the best interest of your team could reduce legal consequences.
This is why we feel compelled to remind you how to watch your team for and treat symptoms of heat exhaustion and its more dangerous brother, heat stroke, on the job site.
What Are Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?
Heat exhaustion, sometimes called heat cramps, occurs when the body gets overheated and becomes dehydrated. As a management system, the body sweats to try to reduce temperatures. But sweating strips the body of required water and salts/electrolytes.
Heat stroke, also called sunstroke, can occur when the body’s temperature-regulating system fails, usually when exposed to extreme temperatures for too long ignoring the signs of heat exhaustion without taking adequate precautions.
Usually accompanied by a fever and often a loss of consciousness. If is not treated, heat stroke can quickly follow causing permanent brain and organ damage, or worse, death.
To stay safe, it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms, both of heat exhaustion as well as heat stroke. If the symptoms are recognized and treated when they occur, you can likely avoid the more serious situation of treating a heatstroke victim.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
The signs of heat exhaustion, once you know what to look for, are fairly obvious, and can include some or all of the following:
- Increased pulse, usually rapid and weak
- Dizziness or fainting
- Muscle cramps and or weakness
- Excessive sweating or cold, clammy skin
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urine is dark in color
What to Do About Heat Exhaustion
If you notice someone displaying any of those signs, you can often keep the situation from becoming even more serious by making sure steps are taken immediately to cool them down. Implement one or more of the following:
- Move the person to a shady area or indoors, and allow them to rest
- Give them cool, not cold, water or sports drinks
- Remove one or more pieces of clothing
- Apply cool, wet towels, especially to the face, neck, and chest to lower body temperature or run cool water over as much of the skin as possible
- Put the person under a fan or air conditioning
Symptoms of Heat Stroke
If the symptoms are not caught in time and the situation seems more serious, they will include some or all of these symptoms of heat stroke:
- Debilitating headache
- Racing heartbeat
- Slurring speech
- Confusion and/or agitation
- Hot, dry skin
- Loss of consciousness
- A core body temperature of 103°F/40°C or more
What to Do About Heat Stroke
If the person is exhibiting any of the symptoms of heat stroke, get them out of the heat immediately and call 911 or get them to the emergency room immediately!
How workers can be proactive about heat safety on the construction site
As the guy out in the heat you must watch for problems before they arise. Follow these best practices:
1. Avoid long periods of work during the hottest part of the day
The hottest part of the day is not high noon as many believe. It is actually between 3 and 4:30 in the afternoon. Either ensure that you have a long break in this hour, or take several short breaks in the afternoon to avoid heat-related illnesses.
2. Stay hydrated
Start your day with water and continue to take sips regularly throughout the day. This way, you’ll ensure your body has enough water. This is a better method than drinking a large amount of water all at once and then forgetting about it for the rest of the day. You’ll likely take in more water and therefore stay more hydrated if you take it in small sips throughout your work day.
Hydration also includes electrolytes, so bring something like Propel, Gatorade, or even Pedialyte on very hot days when your body is likely to shed sodium and other important hydrating elements.
3. Eat smart
Big, heavy meals may not sound appealing in severe heat, but you do need to eat something substantial. Break up your meals into several smaller, protein-rich snacks to stay energized and fueled for your workday.
4. Wear sunscreen
While it won’t protect you from heat exhaustion or stroke, sunscreen will protect your skin from the unrelenting sun. Reapply at least once during the day to make sure you stay protected.
5. Take rest breaks (ideally in the shade)
Even if you’re feeling great, find shade in which to rest whenever possible. Any amount of time you can be out of direct sunlight helps your body stay cool.
6. Actively watch for signs of heat exhaustion & heat stroke
You are your own best advocate. If you feel signs of heat-related illness, stop working and rest. Alert your boss and take a seat in the shade. Do not continue to work as that will only make your situation worse.
>> RELATED READING: OSHA’s Heat Injury and Illness Prevention
How leadership can be proactive about heat safety on the job site
If you’re a manager, your summer safety regiment should focus on your workers. To help them stay safe and healthy on the construction job site during the hot summer days, provide the following resources and services:
1. Educate your workers
Some workers may not be aware of the importance of heat-related summertime safety on the construction site. Give them educational resources and hold team meetings to ensure that all parties are equipped with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe in the heat.
2. Provide weather-appropriate PPE to workers
Scorching temperatures require breathable, ventilated attire. From masks to vests to hardhats, choose gear for your team that helps to keep them cool rather than heats them up in the summertime.
3. Provide shaded areas
Rest isn’t rest when it’s in the baking sun. If there’s no natural shade to help stay cool on the job site, put up tents to provide respite from the sun’s rays.
4. Give regular breaks
You may need to provide more break opportunities in the heat than in the winter months. Build a schedule that cycles your workers in and out of the job more rapidly than you normally would. This way, no one is working so long that they’re likely to develop potentially life-threatening situations.
5. Supply water
Bottled water or water jugs and cups will go a long way to support the health of your team. Supply more than you think you’ll need so you never run out. Monitor your workers about their hydration and encourage them to continue drinking water throughout the day.
If they’re working on a project in extremely hot conditions, be proactive. Like all safety concerns, heat needs to be taken just as seriously.
- The Center for Construction Research and Training, “Heat-related Deaths among Construction Workers, https://www.cpwr.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/KF2019-construction-heat-related-deaths.pdf”
- CDC, “Heat Stress – Heat-Related Illness, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/heatstress/heatrelillness.html”
- Scienceing, “What Is the Hottest Time of the Day?, https://sciencing.com/what-is-the-hottest-time-of-the-day-12572821.html”
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