David J. Fletcher, MD
Heat is a serious hazard for the construction industries. Under normal conditions, the human body builds up heat during exertion and then sweats to eliminate extra heat. However, if it’s hot enough or conditions generate more heat (i.e. working with hot asphalt or lifting heavy loads), the body cannot cool off fast enough.
Too much heat can make workers tired, hurt their job performance, and most importantly, increase the chance of more serious injury.
For example, a worker could potentially get:
- Dehydrated. Heat and exertion combined causes the body to lose water, so you can’t cool off fast enough. Workers may feel thirsty and weak.
- Heat Cramps. The heat can create muscle cramps, even after the workday is done.
- Heat exhaustion. Workers may feel tired, nauseous, headachy, and giddy (dizzy or silly). The skin may be damp and may look mottled or flushed. Some people may faint.
- Heat stroke. A worker suffering from heat stroke may have hot dry skin and/or a high body temperature. The worker may feel confused or even begin to suffer from convulsions or become unconscious. Heat stroke is very dangerous and may even kill a worker without emergency medical help.
The Risk of Heat Stress
Heat stress can strike anyone working in the heat, but the risks rely on several factors, like:
- Fitness level of worker
- Certain medical conditions, such as cardiovascular system issues
- Medication factors (diuretic and stimulant drugs raise risk)
- The weather (temperature, humidity)
- Quantity of clothing the worker is wearing
- How rapidly the worker moves or how much weight he/she may be lifting
- Whether or not workers are near a fan or there is a breeze
- Whether or not workers are in the direct sun.
How To Protect Against Heat Stress and Heat Stroke
There are a variety of steps you can implement with your crews to help reduce the risk of heat-related illness on your jobsites.
- Check the weather: The forecasts are a good start, however, if you do not have access to a site-specific healthcare provider, you can also contact 217 Immediate Care or you can also consult the Wet-Bulb Globe Temperature Index from the National Weather Service.
- Acclimate slowly: Workers generally need five days of working at least 1½ hours per day for their bodies to become acclimated to the rising temperatures. Check weather forecasts for heat wave information.
- Dress correctly: Make sure your crew members wear lightweight, light-colored clothing and wear a hat or sun visor. This type of clothing helps to reflect heat and sunlight to aid the body in maintaining normalized temperatures. However, long sleeves and pants are still necessary to protect worker’s bodies from airborne debris or other safety hazards.
- Eat right: Workers should be advised to eat small meals and salty snacks throughout the day, not just during their lunch break. However, they should NOT take salt tablets unless specified by a physician.
- Drink plenty of fluids: Water or electrolyte beverages only. No alcohol or caffeine as both of these may act as diuretics and lead to fluid loss. The body needs these fluids to keep cool so workers should be encouraged to drink throughout the day, even if they don’t feel thirsty. In extreme heat, workers should be consuming one pint of water every 15 to 20 minutes and their urine should be clear. If it’s dark, they are likely dehydrated.
- The buddy system: Buddy workers up so they can keep an eye on each other during the day. They can also take turns working in the shade to give each other a break from the direct sunlight.
- Timing: Workers should perform the heaviest work (more exertion, heavy lifting) in the cooler parts of the day, between 6 am and 10 am. Take frequent breaks in front of fans or in air conditioning, if available.
What To Do.
If you think someone has heat stroke, call 911. We treat heat-related illnesses at our facilities, but since heat stroke can be very dangerous, it’s best to be certain by calling emergency services from the jobsite.
Then move the victim into the shade or air-conditioning Immediately. Loosen clothing and wipe or spray his/her skin with cool water, then use a piece of cardboard or other materials to fan him/her. The evaporating water will cool the skin until emergency services arrive.
Employers can download the OSHA Heat Stress Quickcard here to keep on all your jobsites for reference.
Stay cool out there this summer!