Beating the Heat in Construction

Catastrophic tornadoes and floods have grabbed recent headlines, but each year one weather phenomenon kills more people than tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and lightning combined: heat.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), [] an average of more than 1,500 people in the U.S. die each year from excessive heat — yet it is the most preventable of weather-related deaths.
If you work in construction, summer is one of your busiest times of the year because it’s typically the driest season and offers the most hours of daylight. But the sun providing all that productive daylight can be the biggest jobsite hazard you face all year. No matter how tough you are or how used to the heat you think you are, excessive heat can bring down anyone who doesn’t take the necessary precautions.
The following information applies to anyone who is employed in an outdoor profession — construction workers in particular — but also applies to those who work in hot factories and anyone who spends time outdoors exercising, gardening, or laboring in any capacity during the summer months. (This is general information. More specific information can be found in the sources cited below.)
Know Your Chemistry

Our bodies dissipate heat by varying the rate and depth of blood circulation, and by expelling water through the skin and sweat glands. When we reach the danger zone, when our blood is heated above 98.6 F, we begin to pant — we’re literally “working like a dog.”
Sweating alone does little to cool the body, unless the sweat is removed by evaporation. But high relative humidity inhibits evaporation. When you’re checking the forecast for tomorrow, pay close attention to the heat index, which is the combination of relative humidity and air temperature. For example, if the air temperature is 96 F and the relative humidity is 65 percent, the heat index is 121 F. This is the heat your body really feels.
Heat disorders involve a reduction or collapse of our bodies’ ability to shed heat by circulatory changes and sweating, or a chemical (salt) imbalance caused by too much sweating. When heat gain exceeds the level the body can remove, or when the body cannot compensate for fluids and salt lost through perspiration, the temperature of the body’s inner core begins to rise, bringing on various degrees of heat-related illnesses.

Ranking Heat Disorders    

The severity of heat disorders is relative to a person’s age, weight, fitness, medical condition, and degree of acclimatization to the heat. For example, heat cramps in a 17-year-old may translate as heat exhaustion in someone who is 40, and heat stroke in a person over 60. Common heat disorders include:

  • Sunburn. Along with being painful and irritating, sunburn can significantly retard the skin’s ability to shed excess heat. The best solution for sunburn is prevention, by applying sunscreen throughout the day.
  • Heat cramps. Symptoms are painful spasms, usually in the muscles of the legs and abdomen, often preceded by profuse sweating.
  • Heat rash. Also known as prickly heat, heat rash can occur in hot, humid environments where sweat is not easily removed from the surface of the skin by evaporation. Serious heat rash can be so uncomfortable that it inhibits sleep and impedes a worker’s performance.
  • Heat exhaustion. Symptoms include heavy sweating, weakness, headache, fainting, vomiting, and skin that is cold, pale and clammy. It is possible to have a normal temperature with heat exhaustion.
  • Heat stroke or sunstroke. This is the most serious health problem for workers in hot environments. Heat stroke occurs when sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat. Symptoms include an excessively high body temperature (106 F or higher); mental confusion or delirium; convulsions; hot, dry skin; strong and rapid pulse; and possible unconsciousness. Make no mistake: heat stroke can be fatal, and victims need immediate medical attention.

Prevention: The Best Solution

The number one method of avoiding heat disorders: avoiding heat. But for construction workers in the summer, this is simply not possible. So, here are some tips for staying cool and staying alive, beginning with the most obvious:
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Your body needs water to keep cool. Drink water even if you don’t feel thirsty. Proper hydration actually begins the day before a long, strenuous day in the sun. Before increasing your fluid consumption, consult a physician if you (1) have epilepsy or heart, kidney, or liver disease; (2) are on a fluid-restrictive diet; or (3) have a problem with fluid retention.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol dehydrates your body. Enough said.
  • Limit caffeine intake.
  • Do not take salt tablets unless specified by a physician.
  • Put less fuel on your inner fires. Foods that are heavy in protein increase metabolic heat production and also increase water loss.
  • Dress as lightly as possible. You need protective clothing, of course, but consider light-colored fabrics, such as cotton, that breathe.
  • When possible, take longer breaks than normal in a cool, shaded area. A rested worker is a more productive worker.
  • Know the symptoms of heat illnesses. Use a buddy system to keep tabs on your fellow workers.
  • Acclimate yourself to the heat. You can “get used to” the heat, to some degree. Workers, especially those who follow the advice above, can eventually develop some degree of tolerance. However, new employees and workers returning from an absence of two weeks or more should have a five-day period of acclimatization: 50 percent of the normal workload and time exposure the first day, gradually building up to 100 percent on the fifth day.

Supervisor Obligations

There are precautions every employer should take when temperatures are high and the job involves physical work:
  • Understand the signs of heat stress and permit workers to interrupt their work if they are extremely uncomfortable.
  • Provide training about the hazards leading to heat stress and how to prevent them.
  • If possible, schedule the heaviest workload for the coolest part of the day: early morning or late evening, when the sun is less intense.
  • Make sure your workers have easy access to cool water — a minimum of one quart of water per hour, per worker.
  • Schedule frequent rest periods with water breaks in shaded or air- conditioned areas.
  • Routinely check on workers who are at risk of heat stress due to protective clothing and high temperature. Pay close attention to those who are at risk because of age and physical condition (including obesity and diabetes).

When A Fellow Worker Is Ill from the Heat

There are several things you can do when a co-worker falls ill from the heat:
  • Call a supervisor for help. If the supervisor is not available, call 911.
  • Have someone stay with the worker until help arrives.
  • Move the worker to a cooler/shaded area.
  • Remove outer clothing.
  • Fan and mist the worker with water; apply ice (ice bags or ice towels).
  • Provide cool drinking water, if the worker is able to drink.
For more information about preventing and treating heat-related illness, consult these articles:

Jeri Lamerton is public relations manager at Ditch Witch.
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