June 21 is the official start of summer this year. Time for summer vacations, backyard barbeques, beach days, boat rides, family reunions, outdoor concerts, 4th of July parades, picnics in the park, flower gardens, farmer’s markets, ice cream cones and lemonade stands.
Weather experts are predicting warmer-than-normal temps for much of the United States as computer models show that the effects of the El Niño event from last winter will transition into La Niña conditions. The Pacific Northwest, the northern Plains, the Great Lakes region and the Northeast should see well-above-average temperatures, The Weather Channel notes, while Southern California, the central/southern Plains and the Southeast will be warmer than normal.
Sunny days and warmer temperatures are what summer is all about, but for people who work outside in these conditions, such as construction workers, too much of a good thing can be a health hazard. High temperatures coupled with high humidity can lead to heat-related illnesses. Workers become overheated when the body can’t balance the hot weather conditions they are working in with their internal temperature generated from physical labor.
Heat exhaustion symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst and heavy sweating. Heat stroke is more serious and can be fatal — confusion, fainting, seizures, very high body temperature, dry skin or profuse sweating. Less-serious ailments are heat cramps (muscle pain) and heat rash.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration started a campaign several years ago (#WaterRestShade, #AguaSombraDescansos) to educate outdoor workers and their employers about heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them. In 2014, OSHA notes, more than 2,600 workers suffered from ailments due to high temperatures and humidity; 18 died from heat stroke and related causes while on the job.
As an employer in the construction trades, you have a responsibility to provide safe working conditions for your employees at all jobsites in all seasons.
In warmer months, that equates to providing water, rest and shade. Be aware of the heat index (air temperature plus humidity) and how it will affect your jobsite crews. In fact, working in full sunlight can increase the heat index by 15° F. Make sure your crews are trained in spotting heat-related illnesses among their fellow workers and what to do in an emergency — especially foreman. Materials in English and Spanish can be found at www.osha.gov/heat.
Workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for succumbing to high temps and humidity, OSHA notes. New employees should acclimate themselves on the first days of work at the jobsite so they get used to the hot weather and build up a tolerance.
Our bodies are 50% to 65% water, so it’s important to stay hydrated. People working outdoors in the hot sun should drink water every 15 minutes, even if they are not thirsty. Ice down bottles of water in several coolers as part of the jobsite prep each morning. Or give employees a refillable water bottle with the company logo they can use to fill up on the jobsite.
It’s also important for workers to rest in the shade to cool down. Provide your crews with adequate shade protection if the jobsite doesn’t have it.
If you supply your field personnel with uniforms or work clothing, make sure to provide them with lightweight and light-colored clothing for the summer months, including a hat. If employees are responsible for their own work clothing, explain to them what they need to wear to be professional yet comfortable.
To help workers and their employers stay healthy while working outdoors, OSHA developed a free smartphone app, the Heat Safety Tool, for Android and iPhones that calculates the heat index of a specific worksite and displays a risk level for outdoor workers. It also provides reminders about preventative measures associated with each risk level to protect workers from heat ailments.
As with most job safety issues, heat-related illnesses can be prevented with worker knowledge and safe practices. As a leader, you want safety concerns to be part of your company’s culture — for the health of your employees as well as the business. Adding heat illness prevention to your company’s safety program is one more tool in your arsenal to keep employees engaged and productive.
If you don’t have a safety program in place, it’s not too late to start. Download materials from OSHA’s site, discuss them at your next company meeting and start making health and safety a priority.