The warm summer months bring a significant increase in weather temperatures and humidity levels. Neumann Brothers’ Safety Manager, James Machamer, discusses the severity of heat-related illnesses and the impact on our team members in the construction industry.
For many people, summertime sunshine means includes spending quality time outside and staying cool by the pool. However, the heat takes a toll on construction workers who spend most of their days on job sites and inside buildings with little air movement, resulting in an increased risk for multiple heat-related illnesses.
Every year, heat-related illnesses affect thousands of individuals in the construction industry, including severe illness and even death from prolonged exposure. It’s important to understand that these heat-related illnesses and death are mostly preventable and together we can make common sense decisions to mitigate these situations from occurring. Let’s look at some of the top summer safety hazards and how to address them.
Sun Exposure: Direct exposure to the summer sun and its intense UV rays can be hazardous to construction workers, especially those who spend long periods of time outside. While the short-term effect of sun exposure is usually a sunburn ranging in severity, long-term effects can include an increased risk of skin cancer. Extended sun exposure can also contribute to fatigue and dehydration.
Managing Sun Exposure: To mitigate these risks, workers should wear sunscreen, cover exposed skin as much as possible, and consider a hat to protect the ears and back of the neck. Whenever possible, schedule regular breaks in a shady area. It’s also important to keep an eye out for new or unusual freckles or moles and always see a doctor for spots that change in shape, size, or color, and are itchy or bleeding.
Dehydration: Water keeps our bodies functioning optimally by regulating core body temperature, carrying nutrients to organs, and flushing out toxins. Extreme heat and hard physical labor can increase the rate at which our bodies lose water, depleting our hydration levels and posing a health and safety risk. To maintain optimal hydration, it’s essential to replenish fluids and electrolytes. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, fatigue, muscle cramps, excessive sweating, hot or dry skin, and nausea, dizziness, and confusion.
Preventing Dehydration: To stay hydrated during the heat, water should always be available and consumed regularly (ideally, every 15 to 20 minutes). Avoid drinks with caffeine, sugar, and alcohol that exacerbate dehydration. Urine color is also an important indicator of hydration levels. Clear or pale-yellow urine indicates adequate hydration, while darker yellow is a warning of dehydration.
Progression of Heat-Related Illness: Prolonged sun exposure and dehydration are dangerous. Symptoms progress and can become more serious–even deadly–if not managed properly.
The development of serious heat-related illnesses can present as follows:
- Heat Rash is often the first sign of problems. Triggered by sweating, heat rash results in clusters of small pimples or blisters, usually in sweaty areas such as the neck, groin, chest, and elbow. It’s easily treated by moving to a cooler or less humid area and applying powder (wet materials such as creams may actually worsen the rash).
- Heat Cramps are a sign that the body is hot and becoming dehydrated. The cramps usually occur in abdominal muscles or legs, and typically appear suddenly. Treatments include moving to a cooler area and drinking fluids, preferably water or electrolyte drinks. Stretching the cramped muscles may also provide some relief.
- Heat Exhaustion announces itself through a variety of symptoms that can include thirst, heavy sweating, headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, and confusion. Body temperature may also climb above 100.4°. Heat exhaustion is a serious condition, and if action isn’t taken immediately, it may quickly progress to heat stroke. A worker who appears to be suffering from heat exhaustion should be moved to a cooler, shaded area and encouraged to drink water and electrolyte drinks. Wet towels can be used on the face, neck, and head to lower body temperature and provide some relief. As a precaution, it’s a good idea to obtain medical attention. If symptoms don’t respond to basic treatment or worsen, always call 911.
- Heat Stroke is the most severe heat illness and can be deadly. As the body temperature rises to dangerous levels, the brain and other organs can be damaged. If treatment isn’t obtained immediately, heatstroke can lead to a coma. How can you tell if heat exhaustion is becoming heatstroke? One sign is that the skin becomes very hot to the touch and the individual may have stopped sweating. Other signs include confusion and disorientation, and in severe cases, workers can become aggressive or suffer seizures.
If you suspect the possibility of heat stroke, don’t delay. Call 911! While waiting for emergency medical services, move the worker to a shaded or air-conditioned area immediately. Use cold, wet towels, ice, or cool water to reduce the worker’s temperature. Every minute and every decreased degree of body temperature counts.
Prevention is Key: As with other aspects of workplace safety, the best way to avoid heat-related illnesses is to take the steps necessary to prevent them from happening. Supervisors can help with prevention by using the following strategies:
- Provide plenty of water and electrolyte replacements.
- Allow time for workers to rest and cool down.
- Utilize shaded or air-conditioned areas whenever possible.
In addition, supervisors need to monitor workers to ensure they are not compromising safety to improve personal comfort. A common example is loosening the straps on fall protection harnesses to reduce discomfort caused by sweating and chafing. No aspect of safety should ever be compromised for temperature comforts.
At Neumann Brothers, safety is our number one priority. Together, we can create a safer and healthier construction industry.