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How Contractors can Beat the Summer Heat

Aug. 29, 2022
Four ways to keep your workers safe and cool while working in extreme heat.

The construction industry requires great attention to safety. For that reason, leaders must prioritize implementing company-wide practices to protect their workers.

At Rosendin, we rely on thousands of craft workers to successfully build some of the country's largest industrial and commercial projects. We have made it an ongoing mission to help our workers recognize dangers and protect them from harm of any kind. When completing projects in drier regions where heatwaves are common, such as Arizona and Texas, we also face the unique challenges that come with working in extreme heat.

Understanding the possible effects of working in hot weather and creating plans to avoid and handle any heat illness are essential elements of maintaining worker health. Rosendin has developed a comprehensive Heat Illness Prevention Plan to help workers across the nation follow safe practices.

In addition, we develop Site-Specific Safety Plans (SSSP) that include specific heat mitigation plans based on the conditions at each site. This can vary based on specific factors, such as regional temperatures, access to shade and indoor cooling, and time spent outside.

For example, in Arizona, Regional Safety Director Rick Brown and his team develop, implement and refine SSSPs to ensure workers have mandatory shade in working conditions exceeding 80 degrees Fahrenheit, pre-shift meetings to review the high heat procedures and adjusted workloads. When needed, Brown and his team reduce the severity of work by scheduling slower-paced or less physically demanding work during the hottest parts of the day and the heaviest work activities during the cooler parts of the day.

Rosendin’s plans have been proven to significantly reduce job site heat hazards while increasing employee and subcontractor involvement in every aspect of safety. Any company can achieve similar results through ongoing training on environmental and personal risk factors for heat illness. Here are four crucial heat illness prevention elements that you can incorporate to keep your construction workers safe while working in the heat.

1. Train for Heat

Commercial construction jobs can be challenging, as workers are performing tasks outside or in partial structures, such as high-rise buildings, arenas, health care centers and renewable energy facilities.

Companies should require employees to undergo training to recognize heat illness symptoms, including heavy sweating, cramps, weakness and dizziness. They should also learn to use prevention methods as well as their region’s required Heat Illness Prevention Standards and OSHA regulations. This should entail having project teams conduct safety orientation training that includes how to respond to heat-related illnesses.

Rosendin also encourages all on-site contractors to work together as a team to actively watch workers for these heat illness symptoms and other heat-related issues. Once training is completed, we provide our teams with hard hat sombreros, neck shades, cooling towels and water-soaked gel bandanas.

2. Encourage Proper Hydration

The most important tip for keeping employees safe is to make sure they stay hydrated by drinking water regularly. Mild dehydration can impair a person's ability to concentrate. Even as little as 1% loss in body weight due to fluid deficiency can impair short-term memory.

On outdoor job sites during the summer, we address the heat with a variety of responses, including water bottles, water stations and water coolers. They are available to everyone on the site, especially the field staff at our outdoor sites. To encourage workers to drink water more frequently, supervisors can implement simple practices, such as placing water coolers close to where staff is working and an hourly reminder to drink fluids.

In addition to water, consider stocking up on ice pops or other products that contain electrolytes, such as sports drinks, coconut water and hydration powders. You’ll also want to remind workers to avoid liquids during the workweek that can be dehydrating, such as alcohol and caffeine.

3. Provide Access to Shade

In addition to adequate hydration stations, it is also important for workers to have access to shade that is open to the air or includes ventilation, such as fans or cooling mists.

On some Rosendin job sites, we are able to provide specially designed cooling trailers with a large portable air conditioning unit that is powered by a generator. These are particularly helpful in our renewable energy projects, as they are usually in remote areas with little natural shade.

These trailers, which are opened up to the air stream, have been instrumental in providing employees a place to go to cool down, recharge and hydrate before returning to work in the hot sun. At any time, employees can sit in the trailers to cool down if they get overheated. We also encourage our foremen to strategically set up mobile pop-up tents and shaded areas throughout job sites.

Once temperatures exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, consider increasing breaks to help workers cool down and hydrate. In the South and other warm climates, companies can also add air conditioned lunch tents and cooling trailers with fans and mist to mitigate overheating. In conditions of extreme heat, companies can train supervisors to observe employees for alertness and other signs or symptoms of heat illness. Companies can also mandate recovery rest periods.

4. Follow Acclimatization Procedures

Working during a heat wave can be challenging, especially for people who are not used to it. It is important to let their body adjust to the heat by limiting exposure in the beginning, encouraging them to take more breaks and staying hydrated.

For these workers, it’s good practice to let them start earlier in the day when temperatures are cooler and schedule the heaviest work activities during this time, leaving less physically demanding work for hotter parts of the day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best outcome for workers is to gradually increase work hours in hot conditions over a 7- to 14-day period, cool off and properly rehydrate between shifts.

Rosendin limits new employees to 8-hour shifts for the first four days and does not assign overtime until employees acclimate to the work environment. We also encourage employees and supervisors to use the buddy system and maintain regular communication via cell phone to monitor their health.

Heat is an unavoidable factor for building projects that take place during the summer or in hot locations. It is crucial for the employers to safeguard their workers by drafting and enforcing detailed procedures to adjust to changing weather conditions.

As the world's temperatures rise due to climate change, these best practices will become increasingly relevant as heat waves and high temperatures become more prevalent, particularly in locations that have never had to deal with these working circumstances. Knowing how to avoid the dangers of extreme heat, as well as how to handle the symptoms of heat illness, is critical for a well-rounded safety strategy.

Shayne Stevens, CSP, CHST, CMSP, is the Senior Corporate Safety Director at Rosendin, the nation’s largest employee-owned electrical contracting firm and one of America's Safest Companies of 2021 by EHS Today. Shayne works out of the company’s regional office in Tempe, Ariz.

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