Beat the Heat: Understanding Heat Risks for Construction Workers


As summer approaches and temperatures soar, we need to turn our attention towards a critical occupational safety issue that affects thousands of construction workers each year: heat exposure.

Heat, particularly extreme heat, is not merely an inconvenience or discomfort for construction workers; it can be a deadly danger. According to OSHA, between 1992 and 2017, heat stress has killed 285 construction workers in the U.S. and injured far more. However, these statistics are far from the true toll heat takes on the workforce, as many heat-related incidents are underreported.

Understanding Heat Stress

Heat stress occurs when the body can’t cool itself adequately. In normal circumstances, our bodies cool down by sweating. However, in extreme temperatures, especially when combined with high humidity and direct sunlight, sweating might not be enough.

The consequences of uncontrolled heat stress are severe. It can lead to heatstroke, a potentially life-threatening condition where the body’s temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms include confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, and in severe cases, death.

Other heat-related illnesses include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rash. While less severe than heatstroke, these conditions can still significantly affect a worker’s health and productivity, leading to time off work, decreased morale, and even long-term health issues.

Common Heat Related Illnesses

Heat Stroke

This is the most severe form of heat-related illness and is considered a medical emergency. It occurs when the body’s temperature control system fails, leading to a dangerously high body temperature, usually above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms include confusion, altered mental state, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, hot and dry skin, rapid heartbeat, and seizures. Without immediate treatment, heat stroke can cause major organ damage or death.

Heat Exhaustion

This is a serious health problem that can develop from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, especially when combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activities. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, weakness, cold, pale and clammy skin, a fast, weak pulse, nausea or vomiting, and fainting. If not treated, heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke.

Heat Syncope (Fainting)

This typically occurs when a person stands or rises suddenly in a hot environment and experiences a temporary decrease in blood flow to the brain. Symptoms include light-headedness, dizziness, and fainting.

Heat Cramps

These are painful, involuntary muscle spasms that usually occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. They are likely linked to an electrolyte imbalance caused by sweating. The cramps may occur during or after physical activity.

Heat Rash (also known as prickly heat)

This is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating during hot, humid weather. It can occur at any age but is most common in young children. Heat rash looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters. It is more likely to occur on the neck and upper chest, in the groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases.

Each of these conditions requires varying degrees of medical intervention. In all cases, moving the affected person to a cooler environment, providing fluids, and rest are essential first steps. However, severe conditions such as heat stroke require immediate medical attention. It’s crucial to recognize the signs of these conditions and take immediate action to prevent lasting health issues.

Why Construction Workers Are at Risk

Construction workers are particularly susceptible to heat stress due to several factors. First, the physical nature of the work increases metabolic heat production. Workers lifting heavy objects, operating machinery, or simply being active for extended periods inevitably produce more internal heat.

Second, construction workers are often exposed to direct sunlight, exacerbating the ambient heat. Sunlight not only increases the temperature but also causes sunburns and raises the risk of skin cancer.

Lastly, the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary for construction work can limit the body’s ability to dissipate heat. Hard hats, heavy boots, gloves, and protective suits, while essential for safety, can also trap heat and hinder sweat evaporation, causing the body to overheat.

Mitigating the Risks

Despite the inherent dangers, there are ways to mitigate the risks associated with heat in the construction industry.

Employers play a crucial role in safeguarding their workforce. A heat illness prevention program should be integral to every construction company’s safety policy. Such a program includes training workers about the dangers of heat stress, recognizing symptoms in themselves and others, and understanding how to respond in an emergency.

Regular breaks are essential, particularly during peak heat periods. Employers should provide shaded or air-conditioned areas for rest periods. Hydration is also vital. Workers should have access to cool water and be encouraged to drink frequently, even if they do not feel thirsty.

Employers should also consider adjusting work schedules to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Where possible, heavier work can be scheduled for cooler early morning hours, and lighter tasks reserved for warmer periods. Technological advancements can also be leveraged. For instance, wearable technology that monitors vital signs can provide early warnings of heat stress, while cooling vests and moisture-wicking fabrics can help regulate body temperature.

Federal Regulations to Protect Workers from Heat Related Dangers

Employers are responsible for creating safe places for workers, including mitigating the effects of the natural environment. Oregon OSHA implemented rules in 2021 strengthening requirements for employers to enact safety measures for workers in extreme heat scenarios.  

Additional OSHA materials to download

To best understand these rules, employers can contact Oregon OSHA for consultations. There are also a myriad of resources on the Federal OSHA page, including posters that can be utilized on jobsites to inform workers and supervisors of their duties and responsibilities.

In general, employers should:

  • Provide workers with water, rest and shade
  • Build heat tolerance by gradually increasing workloads and taking frequent breaks
  • Plan for emergencies
  • Teach workers how to prevent heat related illnesses and recognize the signs
  • Monitor workers for signs and symptoms of heat illness

Individuals must also take precautions and educate themselves on the risks of heat illnesses, including their own personal risk factors. These may include:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Low physical fitness levels
  • Certain medications
  • Alcohol use
  • Drug use

Employees should ensure they’re drinking water, taking designated work breaks, finding shade and acknowledging when symptoms of heat illness may be starting.

Final Thoughts

Extreme heat is a serious occupational hazard for construction workers, leading to severe illnesses and even death. As global temperatures continue to rise, the construction industry must recognize and mitigate the risks associated with heat exposure.

By understanding the dangers, implementing comprehensive heat illness prevention programs, and harnessing the power of technology, we can protect our invaluable construction workforce from the perils of summer’s scorching heat.