It may technically still be spring, but it feels more like summer here in the Midwest and many other parts of the country. The sun is finally out and business is picking up — and as always, the changing seasons bring different safety hazards for construction workers out in the heat and humidity. Here’s what to watch for as temperatures rise.
1. Stay hydrated and eat smart
This is an obvious one — when you’re working hard and sweating under the sun, staying hydrated is essential. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to stop for a drink; OSHA recommends taking a drink every 15 minutes. And though it might be tempting when the weather is slowing you down, avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks, which can dehydrate you even more.
In the same vein, you might eat a little lighter in the summer versus the winter. Eating a heavy meal and then returning to work in the heat can make you drowsy and uncomfortable — and since a nap usually isn’t an option, try choosing a salad over a burger at lunch.
2. Recognize signs of heat stress
Heat stress, which manifests as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, can be avoided if you know how to recognize the signs. Heat exhaustion happens when the body is sweating excessively and losing too much water and salt. You might be dizzy with a fast heart rate and feel nauseated or very tired. If you feel these symptoms beginning, rest, drink water or take a cool shower.
Heat stroke, on the other hand, happens when your body is overheating and unable to regulate its temperature. If there’s nowhere for excess heat to go, your body will store it. Symptoms include feeling confused, throbbing headaches, seizures and hot, dry skin or sweating. Heat stroke can lead to death or disability and should be taken very seriously — if you recognize these symptoms in yourself or anyone else, get immediate medical attention.
Heat stress training is a great topic for a toolbox talk (or two) this month — it’s easy information to cover and could save a life.
3. Adjust work schedules
On the hottest days, it might make the most sense to delay work until a cooler time of the day. In Phoenix, for example, it’s not uncommon for road work to take place at night — both to combat temperatures nearing 120 degrees Fahrenheit and to keep concrete from setting too quickly. You might choose to start work earlier in the morning instead, before midday heat sets in.
If you do opt to perform work at night, especially road work, there are a few more dangers to protect against. Workers are less visible, even with bright lighting, and drivers are more likely to drunk or tired. The Federal Highway Administration provides resources for deciding when night work should be conducted and how to do it safely, so take advantage of those if you go this route.
4. Wear lighter clothing and sunscreen
Personal protective equipment (PPE) can be heavy and hot, so opt for lighter-colored, lightweight options. Contrary to popular belief, you may still want to wear long pants and long sleeves that offer sun protection. Choosing breathable, loose-fitting fabrics will keep you cool and keep your skin protected from UV rays.
Sunscreen is something you don’t want to skip — too much sun exposure can mean painful sunburns and even skin cancer. Choose a sunscreen that’s sweat-resistant and reapply throughout the day. Even on cloudy days, it’s possible to get too much sun, so make it part of your daily routine.
5. Take breaks
The importance of regular breaks can’t be understated, especially for anyone who is not used to working in the heat. While getting acclimated to the heat, you shouldn’t work as hard as you usually do at first — work up to your regular workload over the course of a few days. Rest often in a cool, shady place and use that time to take a drink and reapply your sunscreen.
As they do for many common construction safety issues, OSHA conducts an ongoing campaign for heat safety. The Heat Illness Prevention Campaign kicked off in 2011 and can be summed up in three words: water, rest, shade. You can also download their Heat Safety Tool app, which looks at heat index (temperature + humidity) rather than just temperature. Whatever methods you use, keep everyone safe and cool on the jobsite this summer.