Being safe on the jobsite includes more than watching for trip hazards, eliminating scaffold accidents, installing machine guards and using proper respiratory protection. When it’s hot outside, crews must also learn to work safely in scorching hot temperatures.
According to the Washington Post, July 2023 was one of the hottest on record for much of the US. Temperatures soared for days on end along the Gulf Coast, Texas and Arizona while the Central Plains and East Coast also saw record temperatures. Extreme heat like the country saw in July can cause workers to become sick from exposure, even leading to fatalities in some cases.
OSHA states that 50% to 70% of outdoor fatalities occur within the first few days of working in warm or hot environments because the body hasn’t built a gradual heat tolerance. For construction workers working from indoor to outdoor jobsites, this can cause a major risk factor for fatal outcomes.
Different Types of Heat Illnesses
High temperatures, humidity, direct sun exposure and a lack of a breeze are all risk factors for heat illness. Other factors include performing heavy physical labor, not drinking water or liquids and wearing waterproof clothing. There are also personal risk factors that can exacerbate heat illness risks including:
- Certain medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity
- Lack of physical fitness
- Previous episodes of heat-related illness
- Alcohol consumption
- Certain medications like water pills and some blood pressure medications
Recognizing the type of heat illness affecting your workers can help leaders provide the correct medical care.
Heat stroke, the most serious heat illness, occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature. What happens is the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes, according to the CDC. Heat stroke can cause permanent disability or death if the person does not receive emergency treatment.
The symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness (coma)
- Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
- Very high body temperature
First aid should start with calling 911. In the meantime, move the worker to a shaded, cool area and remove any outer clothing. Cool the employee quickly with cold water or an ice bath, if possible, or by wetting the skin with a cool towel or soaking the worker’s clothes in cold water.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body has lost an excessive amount of water and salt, usually through sweating, according to the CDC. It is most likely to affect the elderly, people with high blood pressure and those working in a hot environment.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Elevated body temperature
- Decreased urine output
Treating heat exhaustion includes removing the worker from the hot area and giving them liquids to drink, removing any unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks and using cold compresses on the head, face and neck or any other body cooling products. The worker may need to be taken to an urgent care clinic or the emergency room if the symptoms don’t subside.
Heat cramps can happen when workers are sweating a lot while performing strenuous activity. The excessive sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels, causing painful cramps. Heat cramps also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
The symptoms of heat cramps are muscle cramps but also pain or spasms in the abdomen, arms and legs.
If a worker has heat cramps, have them drink water and have a snack that replaces carbohydrates and electrolytes, like a sports drink, every 15-20 minutes. If the symptoms don’t subside within an hour or the worker has heart problems or is on a low sodium diet, get medical help.
Heat rash is the least severe heat illness. It is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. Its symptoms include red clusters of pimples or small blisters which usually appear on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts and in elbow creases.
Treating heat rash includes moving the worker to a cooler, less humid environment if possible, keeping the rash area dry and applying powder to soothe the rash. Avoid using ointments or creams on the rash.
How to Prevent Heat Illness
Many heat illnesses can be prevented by training workers to recognize the risks and protect themselves and also by providing a lot of cool water to workers. OSHA recommends workers drink at least one pint per hour when temperatures are high.
Establish a Heat-Related Illness Prevention Program
OSHA aids construction companies by offering an effective heat-related illness prevention program, which aligns with OSHA’s recommended practices. The program focuses on how heat-related illness prevention is most effective when management commits to identifying and reducing exposure to heat stress hazards. OSHA recommends establishing in your program how you’ll determine if workers are exposed to a heat hazard based on environmental conditions (e.g., weather or indoor temperature and humidity), clothing and workload. The heat-related illness prevention program should also include policies/procedures for controlling heat hazards.
Implement a Training Program
Specific OSHA heat-illness prevention training is important to ensure supervisors and workers are prepared to work safely in hot environments. Training should include: information about recognizing heat-related illness symptoms, proper hydration, heat-protective clothing and equipment care and use, other factors that affect heat tolerance, like the personal risk factors mentioned above, and how to acclimatize, report symptoms, work in pairs and give appropriate first aid. OSHA water requirements per person are one cup of water every 20 minutes.
Additionally, supervisors should receive appropriate training on how to monitor weather reports and weather advisories, as well as how to use adjusted temperatures, like the heat index, to make decisions about protective measures. Give a five minute safety talk about heat stress when the weather conditions are ripe for heat illness.
OSHA also notes that an effective training program should include support from a safety and health professional with experience and/or training in heat stress and illness. First-line supervisor awareness and training is critical to ensuring that a heat-related illness prevention program is effectively implemented.
Follow these summer safety tips to help avoid the risks that working outdoors can cause. Educating yourself and training your employees about heat illnesses are the best prevention methods. Make sure your current 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.