Summer is just around the corner and while many of us welcome the heat of the season, outdoor workers may be dreading it. Millions of US workers are exposed to heat in their workplaces– including construction and field service workers. According to OSHA, every year thousands of workers become sick from occupational heat exposure; some cases are fatal. In fact, 50% to 70% of outdoor fatalities 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.
To combat heat-related injuries, OSHA has launched a National Emphasis Program to protect workers from heat illness and injuries. The National Emphasis Program will work to immediately improve enforcement and compliance efforts while establishing a heat illness prevention rule for the long term. Through the program, OSHA will conduct heat-related workplace inspections before workers suffer completely preventable injuries, illnesses or, even worse, fatalities.
What Does This Mean for Construction Companies?
Construction companies need to take steps to keep their workers safe during the hot summer months. This is not only a good workplace practice but one that OSHA will enforce. Under OSHA law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards. And, as part of the National Emphasis Program, OSHA will proactively initiate inspections in more than 70 high-risk industries when the National Weather Service has issued a heat warning or advisory for a local area.
On days when the heat index is 80 F or higher, OSHA inspectors and compliance assistance specialists will engage in proactive outreach and technical assistance to help stakeholders keep workers safe on the job. Inspectors will look for and address heat hazards during inspections, regardless of whether the industry is targeted in the NEP.
How Construction Companies Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses
There isn’t much construction companies can do when temperatures soar. Work still must be completed no matter how hot it is outside. An employer with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat illness prevention program. Below are some steps construction companies can take to prevent heat-related illnesses.
Build a Tolerance to Heat
During the first hot days, workers need time to build a tolerance to high temperatures and acclimate to the heat. Employers should encourage workers to:
- Consume adequate fluids (water and sports drinks)
- Work shorter shifts
- Take frequent breaks
- Quickly identify any heat illness symptoms
Don’t forget to provide another essential element: shade. While the temperature is the same in the shade as in the sun, it can feel 10 to 15 degrees cooler because the body is out of the sun’s direct rays. According to Forbes, the hot air, bright sunlight, and radiated heat from the surfaces around your workers (think burning hot asphalt) are all taking a toll on their bodies, not to mention the added effects of humidity on a hot day.
Help keep body temperatures down by changing the workload and schedules. Not only can managers tell workers to slow down physical activity, but they can schedule work for the morning or shorter shifts with frequent rest breaks in the shade or at least away from heat sources. Build in breaks that are long enough for workers to recover from the heat.
Drink More Fluids
Supervisors should encourage workers in warm environments to drink hydrating fluids. The CDC recommends drinking water before, during and after work. Most people need to hydrate for several hours to replace all the fluids they’ve lost through sweat. Water is best but sports drinks with balanced electrolytes can help replenish a body that’s been sweating for several hours. Employees should avoid energy drinks as the amount of caffeine they contain can affect you’re a person’s heart which is risky when added to the strain placed on the body by heat.
Know the Signs
An effective heat-related illness prevention program is incorporated in a broader safety and health program and aligns with OSHA’s Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs core elements. OSHA encourages water, rest, and shade as prevention as well as treatment for heat-related illnesses.
Signs of a heat illness include:
- Headache or nausea
- Weakness or dizziness
- Heavy sweating or hot, dry skin
- Elevated body temperature
- Decreased urine input
If these symptoms are present, immediately move the worker to a cooler area and give them water. Don’t leave them alone until symptoms are alleviated. More serious symptoms, like abnormal thinking or behavior, slurred speech, seizures and loss of consciousness require immediate medical attention.
Make sure your safety protocols involve the prevention and treatment of heat-related illness by implementing training programs, including certified OSHA training through ClickSafety. Your workers will remain safe, and you’ll be in compliance with OSHA regulations.