5 Ways to Protect Your Crew from Heat Stress

When the mercury soars, make sure your crew is protected from heat stress on the job.

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Summer construction season often means working under a blazing sun, which brings new considerations and dangers to the worksite. The issue is particularly pronounced in the construction industry.

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Though current figures are hard to come by, one study found that 40 percent of all workplace deaths in the U.S. were related to heat strain in the construction industry. Overall, 815 U.S. workers were killed and 70,000 seriously injured by heat stress between 1992 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (These figures likely underestimate the real situation, because many workplace injuries and illnesses go unreported.)

Plus, with global temperatures on the climb, experts think the risk to workers is only going to get worse. Thankfully, with a little know-how and prep planning, crew chiefs can get the job done while beating the heat.

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Heat-related illnesses infographicConstruction Pro Tips

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1) Know What You're Looking For

Heat stress is an umbrella term for all kinds of maladies, from heat cramps to heat exhaustion. One condition, heat stroke, is extremely serious. It's essential that jobsite managers learn about the different types of heat stress, and how they differ from one another. This Construction Pro Tips slideshow covers the symptoms associated with heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

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2) Pass It On

To keep your workers safe, it's key to clue them in about heat stress. There several posters and infocards available, including this poster from the Centers for Disease Control, this QuickCard from OSHA, this detailed handout from the University of Missouri, and this safety sign for the bathroom that compares different colors of urine to proper hydration levels. Tape them up by the water cooler, the toilet and around the job site.

Heat stress, overheated workerSunti/Shutterstock

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3) Acclimate your workers

According to the International SportMed Journal, the most effective method of heat stress prevention is heat acclimatization, or methodically exposing workers to hot working conditions in order to jumpstart physiological adaptations in their bodies. Typically, this means arranging schedules so that new workers are only on site in hot conditions for 30 to 120 minutes per day. This short-term exposure is then repeated over multiple days. Heat stress researchers recommend at least seven days for even a short acclimatization, but OSHA has a different metric: 20 percent of a full work day on the first day, followed by no more than a 20 percent increase on subsequent days, with the worker participating fully on day four.

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4) Have the Stuff

There are hundreds of products on the market to combat heat illness, from body cooling vests and cold sprays to high-pressure misting tents. Researchers are still trying to perfect a reliable body sensor for detecting heat exhaustion/stroke.

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5) Make It Okay to Stop

Sometimes workers can be their own worst enemies, declaring, "I'm fine," when they clearly are not. But crew chiefs can make the difference here, by emphasizing how deadly serious heat illness can be, and by creating a jobsite that doesn't penalize workers for needing to rest and cool down.

Read more summer safety tips.

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Plus, Remember: It's the Law

The Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) Act does not explicitly require employers to prevent heat stroke, though the OSH Administration regularly metes out heat-related citations to employers under the law's General Duty Clause (GDC). The GDC states that employers must furnish to each employee "a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm." OSHA has stung employers for failing to provide heat-related Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), adequate water, heat-related First Aid and heat-related training. Currently, the states of California, Minnesota and Washington—along with the U.S. military—have enshrined specific standards for heat exposure, and many labor advocates are pushing to have one added to OSHA as well.

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Crew Chief in the Hot Seat

Being responsible for the health and safety of your crew is a daunting challenge. But if you take the risks of heat illness seriously and have a plan, the odds are you'll be made in the shade.

About the author

Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. Her work has been published in the Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, Midwest Home, Crain's, msn.com, Experience Life and many other titles.