Between 2011 and 2019, there were 344 worker-related deaths caused by environmental heat exposure, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s widely thought, however, that this number is an underrepresentation, not inclusive of worker deaths due to conditions like heart attack, which can be brought on or exacerbated by unsafe heat conditions.
In the three years since this data was recorded, we’ve seen record-shattering temperatures around the globe. Over the past year, for instance, 67 all-time high-temperature records have been broken across the U.S.; globally, 230 such records have been broken over that same time period. As temperatures continue to rise, it’s reasonable to expect the number of heat-related worker deaths, injuries and illnesses to rise as well.
While these extreme temperatures continue to impact the health and safety of workers across geographies and industries, the global construction industry is particularly vulnerable to the effects of unprecedented heat. Construction workers are required to engage in hard, physical labor outdoors and often work longer hours during the year’s hottest months due to the increased hours of daylight. The combination of record-breaking heat, physical labor and long hours puts construction workers in significant danger.
In addition to having a negative impact on worker health and safety, rising temperatures can harm construction businesses in the form of lost or less efficient labor. Construction employees must work slower and take more breaks in high-heat environments, and they must take time away from the jobsite to recover in the wake of a heat-related illness or injury. Though heat-related death, illness and injury are the most severe outcomes of working in a too-hot environment, the negative effect of lost labor is a notable consideration for businesses in the construction industry.
Thankfully, there is much that can be done to help construction workers stay safe and healthy through the hottest days of the year—and to ensure the continuation of effective, efficient and safe labor on the jobsite.
One such measure is to equip workers with the right protective gear for the environment in which they’ll be working. Many forms of PPE can actually increase a worker’s temperature by minimizing airflow, reducing the body’s natural ability to cool itself by sweating, and through the added weight of the equipment that the wearer must carry while working. However, there are specific PPE features and types that can help do the opposite, allowing workers to maintain healthy and safe body temperatures while minimizing the risk of heat-related illness or injury.
Choose the Right Hard Hat for the Job
One of the easiest places for construction site managers and employers to begin when looking for ways to protect their workers against high temperatures is with the hard hat, a mainstay of the construction site. It’s essential that construction workers are equipped with the best hard hat for the conditions under which they’ll be working—and some hard hats are simply better suited for high temperatures than others.
Certain hard hat features can help minimize heat retention and keep workers safe from heat-related illness or injury. For example, all hard hats will retain some of the heat put off by the sun’s rays, but studies have shown that lighter colored hats retain less heat than darker hats, making lighter hats a better option for outdoor construction work.
Additionally, a wide brim can offer necessary shade when working under the direct sunlight, and integrated vents—suitable for jobsites without electrical hazards—help improve air flow around the head.
Accessories Offer Increased Protection
Choosing a hard hat with heat-minimizing features is important for heat safety, but the benefits of these integrated features can be enhanced even further by the addition of heat-reducing hard hat accessories.
Sweat-wicking helmet liners and brow pads can be affixed to the inside of a hard hat to help prevent added moisture, and the associated humidity, from building up inside a worker’s hat. Anti-glare decals can minimize the impact of the sun’s glare, and sunshades and sunshields can be used to increase the shade offered around the hard hat wearer’s head, neck and face.
Other Heat-Protective Gear
In addition to choosing the best hard hat and accessories for high temperatures, workers can utilize other protective gear that has been specifically designed to minimize heat and maintain the wearer’s body temperature at a safe and healthy level.
A number of PPE manufacturers offer a range of protective gear designed uniquely for high-heat work environments. Items like cooling vests utilize phase change material technology to maintain a set temperature for an extended period of time, thereby offering continuous cooling benefits to workers.
Separately, workers should, when possible, opt to wear clothes made of breathable fabrics underneath their PPE, and consider accessories like UV-protective goggles or sunglasses for added protection from the sun.
What other steps can those in the construction industry take to protect workers in high-heat scenarios?
The right protective gear can make a significant difference in the health and safety of workers laboring in high-heat environments, but those in the construction industry can—and should—take other precautionary steps to ensure worker well-being.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offer a Heat Safety Tool, which gives users access to the heat index for their specific worksite. Based on that heat index, the OSHA-NIOSH Heat Safety Tool provides a risk level to outdoor workers. Workers and employers can use this information—and other, similar tools—to plan and prepare appropriately for their work conditions.
Construction employers must also provide workers with an adequate number of breaks to rest in the shade and drink water. Plan the most physically taxing labor for the coolest times of day—early in the morning or towards the evening hours. Educate workers on the causes and symptoms of heat-related illness, and have an emergency plan in place to help those on the jobsite handle a dangerous situation properly.
As temperatures continue to rise, the construction industry—and the companies that produce protective gear for construction workers—will have to keep innovating and identifying new and improved ways to make sure all workers get home safely at the end of the day.
Matt King is global product portfolio manager for head and face protection at Bullard, a provider of personal protective equipment.