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Keeping cool when the world is on fire: construction worker heat safety

By Linda Schwefel
August 4, 2022

It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s been a long hot summer: at 40.3°C (104.5°F) the UK logged its hottest day ever, a week-long heatwave in Spain and Portugal saw temps of over 114°F and caused the deaths of over 1,000 people, while in China one of a series of heatwaves brought temperatures in excess of 104°F buckled roads and melted tar roofs. Back in North America, places that were always hot are hotter for longer, while other more temperate locales are regularly seeing record-breaking temps.  Our summer summary? It’s hot, often miserably so, in a lot of the world for months at a time. While many people spend their days in air-conditioned homes and offices, what of those who make their living outdoors?

Construction workers (and companies) feel the heat

According to OSHA, construction workers have 13 times the risk of heat-related deaths as other industries as well as the highest number of workers hospitalized, with the cost of each heat-related incident averaging out to about $80,000.  And while construction workers only comprise about 6% of the US labor force, they make up 36% of heat-related deaths, with cement masons, roofers, brick masons, and construction laborers found to be most at risk.

OSHA’s beat the heat initiative

To address the problem, OSHA enacted a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for heat-related hazards, creating a national mechanism for OSHA to proactively inspect and initiate compliance enforcement for heat-related hazards without having to wait for complaints or injuries.  OSHA also will initiate compliance assistance in targeted industries such as construction on heat priority days when the heat index is 80°F or greater.

In addition to mandating that employers provide workers access to water, rest, shade, and training on the hazards of excessive heat, OSHA emphasizes the importance of acclimatization procedures for new and returning employees as half of heat-related deaths occur on a worker’s first day on the job, with over 70% of heat-related deaths occurring during the first week of work.

How contractors can keep workers safe from excessive heat

  1. Jobsite prep. Water and/or electrolyte drinks should be on-site and available to workers. In addition, air conditioned (or at least shaded) areas should be designated for rest periods.
  2. Toolbox talks. Remind workers to drink water throughout the day before they are thirsty (every 15 minutes, OSHA recommends), discuss available shaded/air conditioned areas for rest, and symptoms of heat-related illness.
  3. Acclimatization. Workers new to the job or returning after a break need to be eased into heat exposure.  OSHA recommends the “Rule of 20” to follow for building heat tolerance, where employees work only 20% of the normal duration for the first day, with an additional 20% added each subsequent day, with a full schedule beginning on Day 5.
  4. On-site leadership.  Designate a head heat handler (try to say that five times fast!) to perform inspections throughout the day to ensure there is adequate water and shade for workers, check in on individual worker wellbeing, and enforce acclimatization protocols for new/returning workers.
  5. Buddy system.  As heatstroke’s symptoms include disorientation and confusion, affected people often won’t know they’re seriously ill. A buddy to check in with at regular intervals can help uncover heat illness before it’s a potentially life-threatening emergency.

Digital field inspections ensure (and prove) compliance

While all the above efforts will help to lessen the risk of heat-related illness, proving the measures are in place may be more difficult. With the NEP, OSHA is now actively investigating targeted industries (such as construction) on heat priority days (heat index >80°F) to ensure compliance with its directives.  It’s easy to point out coolers filled with water bottles, or an area of shade or construction office trailers with AC for rest, but harder to prove that you had a toolbox talk, a buddy system, or that acclimatization protocols that were followed.

Using a digital inspection platform like Fulcrum to assign tasks such as toolbox talks, cooler inspections, worker check-ins, and acclimatization schedules, documents the task performance, making it available for OSHA scrutiny. In addition, the efforts made to lessen the risk of heat-related illness can be measured against worker feedback – for example, if the workers on the job experienced fewer symptoms of heat-related illness when the coolers were stocked with Gatorade than with plain water, then management may want to stock up on Riptide Rush.

The show must go on – but safely

COVID-19 lockdowns created a significant pent-up demand for construction projects in both Europe and in North America. And even with the increase in material and labor costs depressing some of the expansion, in the United States, the infrastructure spending bill is spearheading an estimated 34% growth in nonbuilding starts. Recognizing that construction will continue no matter how hot it gets, efforts to lessen the risk are critical for keeping workers working, jobs on schedule, and budgets intact – and most importantly, ensuring that everyone makes it home safely at shift end.