More than 150 people have died this summer because of the unusually hot weather throughout the United States. The majority of those deaths were in the northern states, with more than 90 coming in late July in Illinois.
Having spent most of my jobsite-working years in Pennsylvania, the summer was never too much of a concern for me or my employees. On hot days, we supplied salt tablets for every jobsite first aid kit, and poured cold water on anyone who struggled with the excessive heat.
When I moved to Florida in 1972, the remedies changed. From June through September, the heat was unbearable. I had to relearn the dos and don'ts of working outside to avoid the dangers of heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I also learned what those terms entailed:
- Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms due to heavy exertion. Although heat cramps are the least severe, they are an early warning signal that your body is breaking down from the heat.
- Heat exhaustion usually occurs with heavy exercise or hard work in hot, humid areas. Body fluids are lost through heavy sweating, and the blood flow is diverted to the skin. This decreases the normal blood flow to the vital organs, resulting in a form of mild shock.
- Heat stroke, often called sun stroke, is very serious and life threatening. The body's temperature control systems (sweat glands) stop functioning, and the entire body stops working! If not cooled quickly, body temperature rises too high, and brain damage or even death may result.
I hope you have your foremen trained and certified to administer first aid. This is not a recommendation, but an OSHA requirement that carries severe penalties if ignored.
Naturally, you don't want to deal with over exposure or painful problems. Consider these recommendations to reduce any risk of heat-related illnesses.
SU, SU, SiestaProvide your employees flex time options that will permit them to get in a full week without being exposed to the hot sun. In some areas of Mexico, workers still rest from 1 to 4 p.m., which gives the body a chance to recuperate during the hottest part of the day.
Most of our flex time options accommodate each employee's personal schedule - some like to start early in the morning and go home at noon, others prefer to work in the afternoon until late in the evening.
You should also plan strenuous jobsite activities with rotating shifts, to give employees a break with a lighter duty or in a cooler work area.
Any flex time schedule that will get a job done on time without exposure to the heat is cost effective with an increase in attitude and productivity. Employees will appreciate your concern for their welfare, and will get more done without the excessive heat.
Work in the shade whenever possible. Plan each day's work in phases so your crews will be in the shade of a building, tree or trailer.Wear sunglasses and a peaked hat to shield the eyes from the bright sun.
You must also keep your tools and materials in the shade, or they become too hot to touch, let alone handle for work. Set up tents whenever shade is unavailable.
Whenever possible, provide fans to keep the air moving. Electric fans do not cool the air, but they do help sweat evaporate, which cools the body. Tie a short piece of ribbon or cloth to the fan to blow in the wind for the psychological effect of seeing the air moving.
Keeping body fluids up is essential. Provide ice water on each jobsite, and encourage your employees to drink as much as possible, even if they're not thirsty. Your body needs water to keep cool. Some contractors are now offering Gatorade or other thirst quenchers, but you need to be sure your employees prefer it. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, especially beer, which dehydrates the body.
Salt tablets should not be handed out unless directed by a physician. This is a major turn around from our good ol' days. It has been proven we have enough salt in our normal diet to offset the heat.
Wear light-colored, lightweight clothing that is loose and comfortable, but safe. Be careful the clothing cannot hinder you while working around machinery parts. Light colors will reflect some of the sun's energy to help keep cool, but keep as much of the body covered as possible to avoid sunburn and the possibility of skin cancer.
Eat small meals and eat often with many short breaks throughout the day. Rest in the shade whenever you feel tired or exhausted.
Hot Enough For You?Maintain a joking, light-hearted atmosphere to keep your employees' morale high - they can laugh at problems just as easily as bitching about them. High morale eliminates the possibility of unnecessary accidents or injuries.
We have an age-old saying, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Maybe you can't change the weather, but you can definitely change the way you deal with it. Above all else, you certainly do not want any of your employees to suffer the painful effects of heat exposure. Now we have the knowledge to protect our bodies, and still get the job done.
For more information on heat terminology and treatment of heat emergencies, visit the American Red Cross Web site at www.redcross.org, or contact your local Red Cross chapter.