Heat Stress 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-Related Illness (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. Let’s take a quick look into HRI and how to treat as well as prevent it.
What Is Heat-Related Illness (HRI)?
The classic scenario for HRIs is hard labor outdoors in the summer months. Heat-Related Illness is caused by excessive heat in the body or overload of your body’s temperature control. Meaning more heat is stored in your body compared to the amount being released. You may be familiar with terms like heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Both of these are considered HRIs. A shortlist of factors that contribute to HRI includes:
Heat Stroke is the most serious HRI on the construction site since it can cause death. In non-lethal cases, heatstroke can still result in brain damage and organ damage. Heat stroke is the ultimate breakdown of the body’s temperature control system that can go through stages from dehydration to heat exhaustion. Signs of heat stroke to watch for on construction sites are:
Heat exhaustion comes in two ways, water depletion and salt depletion. Water depletion or dehydration signs include:
Salt depletion is also a type of heat exhaustion and may happen in combination with water depletion with signs like:
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.
Basic Chemistry Involved In HRI Symptoms
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.
How Can I Spot Heat-Related Illness?
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.
How Can I Treat Heat-Related Illness?
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:
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.
What Are Some Best Practices For Preventing Heat-Related Illness?
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.
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.
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.
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
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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