Taking the Heat Out of the Job

May 1, 2007
Construction work is hazardous enough. But when summer brings sweltering temperatures, workers have to be extra careful to not let heat overcome them. One company – Turner Construction – is taking heat stress prevention to new heights.

Escaping the heat while working outdoors in the summer is a challenge. But when the job involves constant drilling, lifting heavy loads or pouring hot asphalt, it becomes almost impossible to stay cool.

The challenge of preventing heat stress for outdoor workers has garnered a lot of attention, so much so that several states already regulate heat stress prevention for outdoor workers. In California, for instance, a spike in the number of heat-related work fatalities led the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to adopt a permanent heat stress standard in June 2006. Likewise, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in the state of Washington issued an emergency heat stress rule that modified an already existing rule on indoor temperature exposure to make it applicable to outdoor workers as well.

But in many states around the country, workers still depend on the goodwill of their employers. For Turner Construction, a New York-based commercial construction firm with more than 45 offices in the United States and more around the world, the motto of “every worker goes home from each of our jobs, every day” not only is applicable to the slew of hazards found in construction work – slip and falls, confined spaces, etc. – but to heat stress as well. Many Turner projects are scheduled for hot climates, according to Cindy DePrater, director of safety for Turner Construction’s Midwest region.

DePrater notes that while it is almost impossible to escape the heat while working under a hot summer sun, preventing heat stress is possible. Already lauded for its comprehensive safety programs (OSHA has acknowledged Turner as a model of accident prevention in practice), Turner Construction’s take on heat stress is taking action before it becomes a problem.

“We try to promote these topics [heat stress prevention] before it ever gets to a stage when it becomes a serious issue,” DePrater says.

Awareness Is Key

DePrater says one of the ways the company handles heat stress prevention is through proper awareness, which starts the moment the worker is hired.

During orientation, the worker is instructed on the types of heat stress, which include heat exhaustion, heat cramps and the most serious type, heat stroke. Workers also are taught to look out for the warning signs of heat stress when working in extreme temperatures, not only for themselves but also among their colleagues.

“We have instituted buddy systems where people on the same crews are watching out for one another because they may not know that they are faltering,” DePrater says. “But if you have someone watching out for you and vice versa, it’s the best they can do because at least they are working around somebody.”

In addition to being on the lookout for telltale signs of heat stress – headaches, dizziness/lightheadedness, weakness, mood changes (irritable or confused), queasiness, vomiting, pale and clammy skin and fainting – workers and foremen are instructed to get help when there is evidence that a co-worker is suffering from heat stress. Even subcontractors are expected to adhere to Turner’s heat stress policies; it appears in their contracts, according to DePrater.

“We make sure that they understand that if you have any doubts about what is happening to a co-worker or if you have somebody down, to immediately call 9-1-1,” DePrater says. “Then we will get somebody out there to help. We keep people on the job who are CPR- and first aid-trained.”

Specialized training on heat stress became valuable for Cynthia Barnes, a safety administrator who has been with Turner Construction for more than 8 years. She recounted that last June while out at a job site in Arizona, a worker who was on his first day on the job complained of nausea and being lightheaded after 4 hours of toiling in the hot desert sun. Co-workers gave him wet towels and fluids as they were instructed during training. But when the worker started to complain of leg cramps – one of the symptoms of heat stress – a call immediately was made to 9-1-1.

After the ambulance came and the emergency technicians gave the worker fluids through an intravenous (IV) tube, the symptoms almost immediately subsided. Barnes attributes the workers’ rapid response to their training.

“In the end, the procedures we had trained on and implemented were used to assist an employee in an extremely dangerous situation,” Barnes said.

Education, Training Should Be Consistent

But DePrater emphasizes that training should never stop at orientation. According to her, education and awareness on heat stress must be consistent, otherwise workers will forget everything they were taught.

“Consistent promotion, consistent awareness, you have to do it that way,” DePrater asserts. “If we were to just do it during orientation, we might hit somebody who is on the job for 3 months and that piece of information has already left their minds.”

DePrater also asserts that training should not be limited to hourly employees, but also should be required for foremen, supervisors and subcontractors. Everyone on a job site should be knowledgeable about the hazards of heat stress.

Although construction workers immediately are prepped on all the hazards related to the construction industry, they may not take the seriousness of heat stress into account. This is why it’s important that supervisors remind workers daily how to protect themselves, DePrater says.

As a result, Turner Construction requires that for most projects, safety managers conduct daily stand-downs, in which the first 5 minutes of the workday is devoted to discussing safety. For instance, if the heat index is going to go over the 90-degree Fahrenheit mark, the foreman lets crew members know about it so they are prepared for it.

Avoiding Work Activity During Sun’s Peak

DePrater is especially proud of Turner’s efforts in scheduling workdays around the sun’s peak times. She explains that each each year, every business unit within Turner Construction is required to fill out a “safety planning document,” which details the potential hazards the workers could face depending on the projects they have and the best hazard prevention methods to use to mitigate those hazards.

This especially is important when it comes to heat stress, DePrater says; if workers know they will be working in hot climates or during the summer in a more moderate climate, they can start the project earlier in the day, when the sun isn’t at its peak.

“In Texas, for example, if a worker is going to be pouring concrete and if it’s going to be 95 or 100 degrees that day, we will start work at 1 a.m., when it isn’t as hot and the sun isn’t glaring down at you,” DePrater says.

Basil Espinosa, one of Turner Construction’s safety managers at the Simi Valley Hospital job site in California, says he appreciates Turner’s policy of allowing workers to take frequent breaks during hot weather. He says he remembers that while working in Laughlin, Nev., where temperatures soared into the 120-degree Fahrenheit mark, the general contractor made it policy to take 10-minute breaks each hour after 9 a.m., which were in addition to regular 15-minute breaks and the 30-minute lunch break everyone usually had.

“I think it helped,” reflects Espinosa. “Heat stress just isn’t about drinking plenty of water. One has to cool themselves down by any means necessary.”

In addition to heat stress awareness and scheduling working at different times depending on the temperatures, Turner also provides workers with fluids such as water, Powerade and Gatorade and promotes the use of equipment that could put the worker more at ease when working in the sun.

PPE: Always Important

Certain types of personal protective equipment can make the summer months easier for outdoor workers. Dark-colored safety glasses as opposed to light-colored ones are handed out to Turner employees so their eyes are protected from the glare of the sun.

Turner’s safety managers distribute full-brimmed hardhats versus front-brimmed hats. If the construction worker is working with steel – a material that gets hot quickly in high temperatures – the company will mandate the use of gloves. Safety managers also promote the use of “cool wraps,” which DePrater explains are neck towels that have a gel inside that cools down the workers.

Safety managers at Turner require workers to wear the proper clothing to stay cool. “We make sure they wear light-colored clothes with sleeves and a collar if necessary,” says DePrater. “We hand out sunscreen and we make sure they apply it liberally throughout the day.

The Information Is Out There

During orientation, newly hired and seasoned workers also can log onto the Turner Knowledge Network (TKN), an e-learning training tool workers can use to research various topics. In TKN, they can access links to heat stress cards provided by OSHA to educate themselves on the hazards of heat stress and exhaustion, learn the symptoms and educate themselves about what to do if they or one of their co-workers are suffering from it.

Even though Turner does turn to OSHA for some heat stress prevention education, DePrater notes that the agency does not have a specific regulation regarding heat stress. However, she adds that OSHA does offer feasible and acceptable methods to reduce heat stress hazards in workplaces.

“Although it would be nice to have a specific standard addressing hot work environments, I feel that with all the information that Turner, OSHA and other organizations provide, we are still ahead of the game because we are promoting so much awareness and training out there right now,” DePrater explains.

For companies looking to develop a heat stress prevention program, DePrater says there are plenty of resources available – OSHA, the Associated Builders and Contractors and the American Red Cross, to name a few – that can provide guidance to reduce heat stress in the workplace and in the construction industry. Turner Construction, she notes, isn’t doing anything revolutionary or “reinventing the wheel.”

DePrater says that prevention and awareness are key in developing heat stress prevention policies.

“The most important thing you can do is to not wait for something to happen,” DePrater says. “Pre-planning ahead and taking care of safety first is important when preventing hazards,” she notes, even – or maybe especially – heat stress.

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