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Heat Stress Toolbox Talk

Use this toolbox talk to educate your team on heat stress safety, different heat-related illnesses that can occur (including heat stroke and heat exhaustion) and how to avoid them when working in heat in construction.

Heat Stress & Working in Heat Safety Talk

Construction workers in the US are commonly exposed to hot outdoor temperatures. The combination of warm to hot weather and the intense labor put most construction workers at risk for heat stress and heat-related illnesses (HRI). CDC information states 285 construction workers died from HRI between 1992 and 2016. Non-fatal occupational HRI is more common but still results in more trips to the ER than any other work-related injury. In this 5 minute safety talk on heat stress, we’ll take a quick look into heat stress, the different types of heat illnesses, as well as how to treat and prevent them.

What Is Heat Stress?

Heat stress occurs when the body cannot get rid of excess heat. When this happens, your body temperature rises, your heart rate increases, and you may experience a range of symptoms, from sweating (or lack of sweating) to dizziness and collapsing.

Heat stress can result in a number of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash.

What Causes Heat Stress?

Workers at risk of heat stress typically include outdoor workers and workers in warm or hot environments. Construction workers are especially susceptible to heat stress as they perform hard labor outdoors in the summer months.

A shortlist of factors that contribute to heat stress include:

  • High outdoor temperature

  • Layers of clothing/PPE

  • Dehydration

  • Decreased urination

  • High humidity

  • Direct sunlight

  • Intensity of work

  • Non-A/C workspaces

When left untreated, heat stress can lead to heat-related illness, which can progress rapidly. It's important to know the symptoms and causes of heat-related illnesses so you can be on the lookout for yourself and others.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are debilitating painful muscle cramps that commonly happen when working in a hot environment or may start up to a couple of hours afterward. Sometimes the affected muscles are the ones being used the most like calves and hamstrings, hands, or lower back.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the body's response to an excessive loss of water, salt, or both. Left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.

Symptoms of water depletion (or dehydration) include:

  • Excessive thirst

  • Headache

  • Weakness

  • Loss of consciousness

Symptoms of salt depletion include:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Muscle Cramps

  • Dizziness

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the ultimate breakdown of the body’s temperature control system. It occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature, resulting in a rapid rise in body temperature that can cause organ damage, brain damage, and even death.

Heat stroke is the most serious type of heat illness on the construction site because it is life-threatening. In non-lethal cases, heatstroke can still result in permanent disability, so it’s imperative that those suffering heat stroke symptoms receive emergency treatment.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Fainting

  • High Body temp

  • Powerful headache

  • Lack of sweating

  • Vomiting

  • Confusion

Basic Chemistry Involved In Heat Illnesses

In life and in our bodies, water follows salt. They always travel together in and out of your body. You never lose one without the other and your sweat always contains a percentage of both. Therefore, when more water leaves your body than you put in, you become dehydrated and typically have a salt deficit as well. This sodium deficit affects your muscles and energy levels with muscle cramps, fatigue, and headaches as common symptoms.

Nausea and vomiting can negatively affect your electrolyte balance even more than simple sweating. This situation becomes dire very quickly on the construction site because someone who is nauseous and vomiting may not be able to keep replenishing fluids down and will deteriorate rapidly.

Construction worker working in heat on road.

Start by looking for signs of dehydration before it progresses to heat exhaustion. Excessive thirst, headaches that don’t go away with increased fluid intake and a break in the shade, muscle cramps, etc… are all signs construction workers are having heat stress issues. If these symptoms go unnoticed or unresolved, construction workers can deteriorate into the more severe symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

For anyone on the job site displaying HRI symptoms, you need to take immediate action. Stop them from working, move them into the shade, and push clear fluids. Have the person drink water and zero caffeine electrolyte replacement drinks. Popular drinks include:

  • Bottled water

  • Pedialyte

  • Powerade

  • Gatorade

Keep a close eye on the individual. If they recover with fluids and shade, send them home for the day. If they do not recover, or they deteriorate and show signs of heat exhaustion call 911. Then, move them indoors and into an air-conditioned space if possible. Stay with the patient until EMS arrives.

DO NOT put ice-cold water on a construction worker suffering heat exhaustion or heat stroke as this can cause them to go into shock making the situation worse.

Heat Stress Prevention Best Practices

When working in heat on the construction site, it's important to keep the following heat stress prevention tips in mind:

1. Stay Hydrated

Drink more water and fluids than you think you need on the construction site in hot or humid months. If you wait to drink only when you are thirsty, dehydration has already begun. On average, construction workers sweat between 27 oz. and 47 oz. per hour during strenuous work. Compare this amount to 16.9 oz. water bottles you commonly see on construction sites and it is easy to see how someone could get dehydrated even if they are consuming 1 bottler per hour.

2. Take Breaks

Take frequent breaks from the sun and heat. Find and use air-conditioned shade when it is available and provide shade with pop-up tents when no other shade is available on your construction site. Nowadays, it is common for tradespeople and construction workers to take more breaks in the summer months to allow their bodies to cool down as well as hydrate.

3. Take Time to Adapt

Allow your body to adapt. It can take up to two weeks for a healthy construction worker to acclimatize in a hot environment. Be especially watchful of people who may be new to the environment and job site as they are less likely to be aware of the signs of dehydration and heat stress.

4. Adjust Starting Time

Adjust the starting time for construction work if possible. Many jobs outdoors start much earlier in the day during the summer months to keep workers out of the intense heat of the afternoon sun. If the schedule allows, move your starting times or strenuous work time accordingly, so you can safely work around the hottest time of the day.

Take Heat Stress Seriously When Working in Heat

Know the signs of HRIs and heat stress in workers on the construction site. The attitude of being tough and pushing through the pain could have lethal consequences. Have a plan and supplies in place for dealing with heat stress on your construction site. Always call 911 for anyone you feel may be in danger of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

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