With heat waves lasting longer and occurring more frequently than in the past, construction workers are increasingly exposed to dangerously hot conditions that can lower their productivity and lead to illness, injury, or even death. To protect workers from this occupational health risk, construction business owners should implement strategies and procedures aimed at mitigating the risk of heat-related illnesses, such as ensuring that workers are adapted to working in the heat, and training workers and supervisors to recognize symptoms and administer first aid.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental heat led to 37 work-related deaths and 2,830 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work in 2015 alone. Meanwhile, a 2019 report by the International Labour Organization warned that heat stress at work linked to climate change could have a severe impact on the productivity of the construction industry worldwide, with an estimated 19% of global working hours lost by 2030.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a specific standard that addresses the hazards of working outdoors in high temperatures, employers are legally responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards, including protecting workers from extreme heat. Employers are also required to follow personal protective equipment standards, provide access to potable water, and provide safety training and education in recognizing and avoiding unsafe conditions. Moreover, 25 states currently have OSHA-approved state plans in place to protect workers from work related deaths and illnesses, many of which have more stringent heat exposure regulations.
Employers can ensure that they are in compliance with Federal and state laws by creating a heat illness prevention program, as well as a plan that outlines the steps workers should take in response to a heat related illness, and the specific procedures they should follow in a heat-related medical emergency.
All employees should be trained in keeping themselves safe from heat-related illnesses. On hot days, workers should be encouraged to drink plenty of fluids and to take more frequent breaks to cool down. Each job site should have a hydration station with water, sports drinks, ice, towels, and fans or air conditioning. When possible, reflective or heat absorbing shielding or barriers should be provided. Workers should also regularly apply sunscreen and wear protective clothing, including hats, light clothing, and sunglasses. If a new employee is not used to working in high temperatures, he or she should slowly become acclimated by starting with 20% of a regular workload, and then working up to 100% over the next seven to 14 days.
workers and supervisors should be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of a heat-related illness, such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. The most severe of these conditions, heat stroke, occurs when the body can no longer regulate its temperature, and can lead to death or permanent disability. Symptoms of heat stroke include confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, and a very high body temperature. Workers experiencing these symptoms should be taken to a cool, shaded area, treated with ice or cold compresses, and taken to the emergency room.
Other less severe forms of heat-related illness, such as heat exhaustion and muscle cramps, can be treated by allowing the worker to cool down and drink fluids. If the symptoms subside, workers may be able to return to work. But if the symptoms persist, the worker should seek immediate medical attention.
To support employers in preventing heat-related illnesses, OSHA has developed a smartphone application that employers and workers can use to determine the current heat index and risk level for heat illness, and that provides recommended protection measures based on the current risk level. On especially hot days, employers should consider scheduling work outside of the hours when the sun is strongest and the heat index is highest.