Keeping Cool on the Jobsite
“How do I keep my people safe when it might hit a hundred degrees this week?”
That’s the question supervisors in construction, fleet service, landscaping, roofing, HVAC-installation, agriculture and dozens of other outdoor work industries ask themselves each summer. And...its a valid question. When temperatures begin to soar into the 90s and upwards of triple digits, there’s no shortage of suggestions designed to help workers keep their cool. For the people who have to work in extreme weather conditions, including extreme heat, running to the air conditioning isn’t usually an option. For them, the dangers of heat-related illnesses are an everyday reality.
The truth is that for millions of workers across America, summer heat comes with the job. Making sure they avoid heat-related illnesses at the jobsite is your job. But that’s not a problem. With the right planning and preparation, just like you’d do with any of your projects, virtually every heat-related illness can be prevented.
Myth: Heat is only dangerous to older people.
Fact: Even the healthiest, most physically fit among us can suffer heat-related illnesses.
What exactly is “extreme heat?”
According to Ready.gov, extreme heat is defined as a period of higher than normal heat and humidity, with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two to three days. On days when it’s extremely hot, the body is already working overtime to maintain its normal temperature. Add occupational exertions and it gets even worse.
Myth: As long as your workers are sweating, they’re doing fine in the heat.
Fact: One of the surest signs of heat exhaustion is extra-heavy sweating.
Roots of serious heat-related Illness
The human body is amazingly efficient when it comes to regulating its body temperature. It’s able to keep internal core temperatures near normal in all sorts of weather conditions, including heat. But it has its limits. Heat-related illnesses take place when the body can no longer properly cool itself.
In extreme heat, blood vessels close to the body’s surface are warmed. That warmer blood circulates through the body, raising the temperatures at the deepest levels of the body’s core. The body answers with thermoregulatory processes -- its cooling system -- kicking in. Sweating begins as the body tries removing the heat from the core and allowing it to evaporate into the atmosphere.
If it’s humid and workers are dripping with sweat, often the case, the body can’t sweat efficiently. Evaporation begins to fail and internal temperatures rise faster than its ability to cool, which can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs.
Myth: The best way to get used to heat is to immediately start working in it.Fact: According to the CDC, those who will be working in the heat this summer have to get used to it gradually, a process called acclimatization.
Primary heat-related illnesses
The most serious of the heat-related illnesses can even lead to death. When heat stroke occurs, body temperature can reach 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes, causing death or permanent disability.
- Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
- Loss of consciousness (coma)
- Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
- Very high body temperature
- Fatal if treatment delayed
The body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating, is called heat exhaustion. Workers who are elderly, have high blood pressure, and those working in a hot environment are most prone to heat exhaustion.
- Heavy sweating
- Elevated body temperature
- Decreased urine output
Heat cramps can strike workers who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. Excessive sweating depletes the body’s salt and moisture levels causing painful cramps. Heat cramps may also be a symptom of heat exhaustion.
- Muscle cramps, pain, or spasms in the abdomen, arms, or legs
Heat rash is a more common skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather.
- Red clusters of pimples or small blisters
- Usually appears on the neck, upper chest, groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases
Allow for acclimatization
Acclimatization is the process of allowing workers to adapt to hot environments through gradual exposure. Benefits include increased sweating efficiency, stabilization of blood circulation, the ability to perform work with lower core temperature and heart rate and increased skin blood flow at a given core temperature.
Fluids for life
Because water makes up about 60 percent of our body weight, fluids are needed by all of the body’s organs to perform vital life functions like breathing, thinking, digesting food, urinating, and maintaining optimal core body temperature. This is why dehydration is such a danger. According to OSHA, those most at risk of dehydration are employees who work directly under the sun, work for hours at a time and wear PPE as part of the job requirement. Keeping them hydrated means at least a pint of water every 15 minutes. Have water and non-caffeinated, low-to-no sugar beverages readily available.
Take regular breaks
Before workers feel the effects of the heat, schedule regular breaks. Resting rebuilds energy. Take that time to rehydrate and use cloths soaked in water to help lower body temperature.
As the employer or supervisor, changing working hours to take advantage of the earlier morning cooler temperatures is an easy way to deal with the high heat. Scheduling heavy jobs earlier in the day and doing those tasks that occur in unshaded areas is also a way to cut the problems of heat exposure in the summer.
Use sunblock with an SPF of 30 or higher to cut the severity of the sun’s UV rays. Apply sunblock when you get up in the morning and reapply throughout the day. Wear protective clothing such as thin, long sleeved tops and wide-brimmed, vented, sun shade hats.
Those at a higher risk of heat stress include new-hires and older employees over sixty-five. Workers who are overweight, have hypertension or heart problems, or workers on medication impacted by high heat are also at high risk for heat illness.
Notice the signs of heat distress
It's important to understand and and monitor your team for signs of heat illness. The early signs include symptoms of heat exhaustion, followed by heat cramps and finally heat stroke.
Be prepared for the hot days of summer and reinforce the importance of taking health issues seriously by having a safety talk to review signs of heat illness and tips for staying cool.