Protecting Construction Crews from Heat Illness

Heat illness is no joke. Make sure you’re doing your part to prevent it. 

With temperatures rising, it’s time for a refresher on how to keep construction workers from succumbing to the heat. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 2,630 workers were stricken with heat illness in 2014, and 18 died on the job.

A properly implemented hot weather safety policy can prevent deaths like these. To keep workers as safe and cool as possible, remember three key words: rest, shade and hydration.

In the summer, construction workers are often faced with one of two evils — working outside in the sun, or working inside, where lack of ventilation has created a heat box. Both conditions warrant regular breaks for rest and water. Lawmakers in Texas, where average highs in July and August are in the upper 90s, have introduced a bill that would make brief rest periods for construction workers mandatory.

According to OSHA, workers should rest in the shade to cool down on hot days and should drink water every 15 minutes, whether they’re thirsty or not, to avoid dehydration. OSHA requires employers to provide workers with drinking water. Employers should also provide a resting place in the shade for scheduled breaks.

In addition to using rest, shade and water to fend off heat illness, workers should wear light-colored clothing. But technology can also help them keep their cool. For example, ZIPPKOOL, based in California, offers an attachment for helmets and hard hats that uses a lightweight fan to circulate air and reduce heat buildup.

Construction crews in Qatar will soon be feeling the breeze thanks to a cooling helmet developed by a team at Qatar University. It can supposedly reduce skin temperature by up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. A solar panel in the helmet operates a small fan that blows air over a cooled material contained in a pouch at the top of the helmet. The helmets could be available for purchase later this year.

Another heat safety wearable that may be coming to market soon is a vest developed by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. The "smart vest" has sensors that track body heat and heart rate. That data is sent to a smartphone app, which can raise an alert in the event of abnormal readings.

Construction crews should keep an eye on other and call a supervisor if a worker shows signs of trouble. Workers who are new to the site may be especially vulnerable because they haven’t built up a tolerance to the heat.

By offering rest, shade and water — and perhaps adding in a bit of cutting-edge technology — employers can throw cold water on heat-related illnesses.