Heat Safety in Construction

08/17/2021

The Pacific Northwest has experienced multiple heatwaves during the summer of 2021, and the soaring temperatures are highlighting the need to prioritize awareness of heat exposure related illnesses, heat safety in construction as well as strategies to keep workers safe in these conditions.

In July of 2021, Oregon OSHA enacted an emergency rule to require employers to take precautions for workers during high temperatures. Utilizing the heat index and tiered levels of regulation, the basic idea is to provide shade and water at regular intervals to keep workers hydrated and healthy as temperatures rise.

In addition to these rules, Perlo has been utilizing a variety of strategies to minimize heat exposure and maintain worker safety in all aspects of our jobsites. Today we’ll explore more about OSHA’s new rules as well as strategies to minimize the risk of heat related illnesses on our sites.   


The Heat Index

According to the National Weather Service, The heat index is ‘what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature’. To determine the heat index, the temperature and relative humidity must both be accounted for. In higher humidity environments, the relative temperature will feel hotter than in low humidity environments.

Heat index chart from the National Weather Service

Critical to note is that the heat index is based on temperatures in shady locations, which means that workers in direct sunlight can experience an increase of the heat index value by up to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re inclined to do manual calculations to determine the heat index, the National Weather Service provides the Heat Index Equation on their website, although most weather apps will identify this.

OSHA Oregon Temporary Rules

The full documentation outlining OSHA Oregon’s new temporary rules are available on their website. In summary, the rules apply when the heat index temperature reaches or exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the regulations increase at each 10-degree interval.

At a heat index temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, employers must supply access to shade and a supply of drinking water.

At a heat index temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, employers must also establish the following:

  • Effective communication channels between employees and employers for reporting purposes.
  • Observation of employees for signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses.
  • Cool-down rest periods in the shade of 10 minutes in length for every two hours of work.
  • Development of an emergency medical plan and practices to help employees gradually adapt to the rising temperatures.

Additionally, employers must provide specific training to each employee about the risks of heat related illnesses, the responsibilities of employers related to heat exposure, and general education on personal risks that may exacerbate heat related illnesses, such as medications, obesity, alcohol, etc.

The new rules outline clear descriptions of shade and the expectations regarding the quantity, cleanliness and temperature of available water supplies for workers.

Heat Related Illnesses

There are a variety of heat related illnesses that an individual may succumb to. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) outlines these clearly on their website. They can include:

Heat Stroke
The most serious heat related illness, which occurs when the body can no longer regulate its own body temperature. Extreme fevers up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit can be reached in as little as 10 – 15 minutes time, and heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability without immediate and proper treatment.

Heat stroke symptoms may include:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature
  • Death

Heat Exhaustion
Typically triggered by excessive sweating and therefore the loss of water and salt in the body, heat exhaustion is most often suffered by the elderly, those with high blood pressure, and people working in hot environments.

Heat exhaustion symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Decreased urine output

Rhabdomyolysis
A medical condition related to heat stress and physical exertion, this condition is related to the breakdown and loss of muscle. It can cause irregular heart rhythms, seizures and kidney damage.

Rhabdomyolysis symptoms may include:

  • Muscle cramps and/or pain
  • Dark colored urine
  • Weakness
  • Exercise intolerance
  • No outward symptoms

Heat Syncope
A fainting episode or dizziness that typically occurs when rising suddenly from a laying or standing position, or from prolonged standing. Dehydration and lack of acclimating to the environment contribute to this condition.

Heat syncope symptoms may include:

  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Light headedness upon suddenly rising

Heat cramps
Typically arising after long, strenuous periods of heavy activity where sweat has decreased the water and salt levels in the body, this is when the muscles in the body cause painful cramping.

Heat cramps symptoms may include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Pain
  • Spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs.

Heat Rash
A skin irritation from excessive sweating during hot weather.

Heat rash symptoms include:

  • Red clusters that appear like small pimples or blisters, and usually are located on the neck, upper chest, groin, under breasts or in elbow creases.

NIOSH provides a two-page First Aid for Heat Illness Fact Sheet to educate employers and workers on heat related illness, prevention techniques and first aid protocols, and has additional educational resources on their website.

Site Strategies for Heat Safety in Construction

The best strategies for individuals to avoid heat related illnesses are to stay hydrated, to slowly acclimate to high temperatures, wear loose and comfortable clothing, and avoid direct sunlight. On construction sites, we must take special care to ensure that workers remain healthy and safe, especially when temperatures rise beyond 80 degrees.

Heat safety in construction - drinking water

We utilize a variety of options for helping to maintain safe work sites related to the heat:

Providing shade: Ideally, a job trailer with air condition space is available for work breaks, and at minimum, significant shady areas are available for the entire crew.

Providing water: Water coolers are provided with enough water for each employee to consume at least 32 ounces per hour, at a temperature no warmer than 77 degrees. When power is limited for cooling mechanically, we add ice to the water supply.

Sun visors on hard hats: In addition to light and loose clothing, many of our crew members are now wearing sun visors on their hard hats to provide additional sun protection.

Enforced break times: In addition to regular breaks as required by national labor laws, the new Oregon OSHA regulations regarding temperatures above 90 degrees dictate 10-minute breaks for every two hours of work.  The rest periods must be in a shady location and as close as practical to the employee’s areas of work.

Shifting work hours: When possible, site working hours are shifted to avoid the warmest times of the day.  This may mean switching to night hours or beginning shifts in the very early hours of the morning.

Misting station installations: If a water source is readily available, sites can choose to install misting stations to provide additional cooling for workers.

Final Thoughts

Heat related illnesses are a serious concern.  By employing strategies to both educate workers about the risks, as well as provide opportunities for breaks, shade and hydration, these concerns can be minimized. It is always our goal for individuals to be safe and healthy on our jobsites. We encourage you to stay safe as we progress through our summer heatwaves.