Here Comes the Sun: Getting a Handle on Heat Stress

As summer brings waves of rising temperatures and stuffy humidity from coast to coast, many people are starting to plan fun activities that will take them to pools, lakes and beaches, while others will curl up in the frosty confines of air conditioning. However, in construction, this is a busy time of year. It’s not uncommon to see sweating workers toiling in high-heat conditions on steaming asphalt. Heat and humidity are a serious health threat to workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20 construction workers die from heat-related illnesses each year.

The risk of heat-related illnesses depends on many factors, such as the worker’s fitness, the weight of their clothing, their amount of exposure to direct sunlight and how strenuously they are working. But it is rising environmental temperature and humidity that tips the scale toward a clear and present danger for workers.

“Heat-related illnesses can range from cramps and rashes to heat exhaustion and heat stroke,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Fortunately, LIUNA’s members and signatory contractors can work together to prevent heat-related illnesses. Water, shade and periodic rest breaks are what workers need to stay safe and perform their best when heat sets in.”

The body naturally builds up heat when working, then sweats to get rid of this excess heat. However, when the body is also being heated by external sources, such as pouring hot asphalt on a highway job during a heat wave, it becomes difficult for the body to cool off. Hot environments also increase the risk of injury, as they can result in sweaty palms, fogged safety glasses or burns. Heat also leads to fatigue, slowing down workers and lowering job performance.

There are ways to protect workers from the hazards of heat stress. As the video below from OSHA states, there are three non-negotiable fundamentals when it comes to protecting workers from heat illness:

  • Provide cool water and encourage workers to drink it all day. Workers should drink at least a cup of water every 15 minutes during high-heat conditions.
  • Provide shade or a cool environment for workers to take breaks.
  • Put workers on breaks frequently during high heat. Allow workers who observe or experience heat illness symptoms additional rest breaks.
  • One of the most effective measures to prevent workers from experiencing heat-related illnesses is acclimatization. At the beginning of heat waves, allow workers to get used to working in high-heat conditions. The same goes for hot Mondays – allow workers to slowly ramp up activity after a weekend of (presumably) leisure. Encourage workers to wear light-colored, lightweight clothing. Encourage workers who must wear heavy personal protective equipment (e.g., a full body harness or Tyvek suit) to take extra breaks. Workers should know the symptoms of heat illness, how to recognize them in others and when to seek help.

    There are no federal OSHA standards or requirements to protect workers from heat illness. There are only the general guidelines provided by OSHA and the CDC that are listed above.

    The LHSFNA’s Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses in Construction pamphlet and Heat Stress Prevention toolbox talk can help LIUNA signatory employers reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses on site. Order through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue or contact the OSH Division at 202-628-5465 for more information. This summer, let’s make sure we all work together to protect one another from this common but preventable hazard.

    [Walter Jones is the Fund’s Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]

See video