Construction Boom Amplifies Summer Heat Risks
There’s no doubt that the construction industry is heating up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in residential construction grew by 33,000 jobs from November, 2013, to April, 2014. Jobs in heavy and civil engineering grew by 25,000 over the same time period.
While that’s great news for the private housing market and public sector projects, a hiring flurry of new and inexperienced workers also heightens safety risks, especially for health hazards posed by upcoming summer heat.
According to the National Association of Homebuilders, more workers are being hired with no background or experience in the field. A great number of seasoned veterans left the industry for new careers after the housing bust and economic downturn in 2008. During the worst of the recession, 1.4 million construction jobs were lost. If settled in new positions, most of those employees will likely not return.
“Our foremen have iPads, so they can access safety apps relating to heat illness for education and coaching of their employees.” — Bryan Schwartz, risk manager at American Infrastructure.
“Workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for heat-related illnesses,” said an OSHA heat illness training guide for employers. An OSHA investigation of 25 heat-related incidents in 2005 found that almost half of the cases involved a worker on their first day on the job, and 80% of the cases involved a worker who had only been on the job for four or fewer days.
Workers new to the industry may not be able to identify symptoms of heat illness, and may not receive adequate training on the topic. New guys looking to prove their worth and impress colleagues and supervisors may also be hesitant to complain if they are struggling, said Frank Burg, president of Accident Prevention Corp.
“It’s an enormous problem, and definitely underrated,” he said. “The reason we don’t have a good safety standard on heat stress is because there are a lot of individual differences from worker to worker, and it would be hard to enforce. And any issue that involves nature is very variable and complicated.”
That variability may be why the American Society of Safety Engineers calls heat the “unseen danger” at construction sites. The symptoms of heat illness, it says, can be subtle and misinterpreted as mere annoyances rather than signs of a serious health issue.
Heat rash, typically the first sign, manifests itself as small blisters in sweaty areas on the skin. As the body becomes dehydrated, muscle cramps can also pop up. Simply applying powder to the rash and drinking water or sports drink would fix these issues, but it’s all too easy for workers in the middle of a job to dismiss them as temporary inconveniences and move on.
Heat exhaustion can set in when body temperature inches above the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and is indicated by thirst, heavy sweating, headache, nausea, dizziness, irritability and confusion. The uneducated worker may interpret this as simply being cranky or tired from toiling in the sun, and may not take time to stay hydrated, move to shady area, or relax for a bit to ease the discomfort.
Finally, the most serious form of heat illness is heat stroke, which can be deadly. In this condition, body temperature soars above 100 degrees and skin becomes hot to the touch while sweating ceases. Disorientation and aggressiveness can occur. At this point, a short break or gulp of water won’t be enough; workers will need medical attention.
According to a Department of Labor news release, “In 2012, there were 31 heat-related worker deaths and 4,120 heat-related worker illnesses.” Though it lacks a safety standard, OSHA launches its Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness every summer to raise awareness. It provides worksite posters and training materials for employers, including tips on heat stress prevention strategies.
Providing adequate water and cool break areas certainly help, but the best way for employers to head off medical emergencies is to consistently interact with workers, both to update them on expected weather conditions and gauge how they’re feeling.
“Looking out for one another is very important,” said Bryan Schwartz, risk manager for heavy civil construction company and 2013 Teddy Award winner American Infrastructure. “Our foremen have iPads, so they can access safety apps relating to heat illness for education and coaching of their employees.” Foremen also observe their workers during morning meetings to assess their condition. Anyone who appears too exhausted to work may be given lighter duty, or at the very least watched more carefully.
“Emphasize the aspect of comfort to deal with individual differences,” Burg said. “I want my clients to communicate that employees should report whenever they are uncomfortable because of heat. Even when temperatures aren’t that high, there could be an issue with lack of ventilation or heavy clothing.”
Communication will help project managers identify those workers not accustomed to working in high temperatures who need more time to adjust. OSHA recommends that employers “gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks to help new workers and those returning to a job after time away build up a tolerance for hot conditions.”
An OSHA spokesperson claimed that new workers should only take on 20 percent of a normal workload their first day on the job, and that full acclimatization could take up to two weeks.
While these guidelines are a good place to start, “more needs to be done,” Burg said. “There are instruments out there to constantly monitor heat and humidity. There are apps that monitor human physiology and measure heat stress in individuals. We need to develop, adopt and utilize them. Almost everyone has a smartphone.”
Burg isn’t the only one to see the value in harnessing technology. OSHA debuted its Heat Index App in 2011. The free application “helps assess risk and provides recommendations for working in the heat based on location.”