Texas, summer 2009, the outside temperature is 108° F and a laborer collapses while cleaning out footings. He is rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead on arrival from heat-related illness.

Mississippi, summer 2010, a crew is building curb forms on a street project. A worker collapses near the portable toilet and is found an hour later by another crew member. He is pronounced dead from heat exhaustion.

It’s summer and hot weather is here again. When you work outside, extreme heat is not only uncomfortable, it can kill. Unfortunately, there are thousands of workers in the construction industry that get sick from heat exposure every year. These illnesses and deaths are preventable.

Prevention program

The body normally cools itself by sweating. During hot and humid weather, sweating isn’t enough because humidity prevents evaporation that cools the body. Body temperature can rise to dangerous levels if multiple precautions are not taken, such as drinking water frequently and resting in the shade or air conditioning. Heat illnesses range from heat rash and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention and can result in death.

Companies should establish a heat-illness prevention program. The main steps are simple: Provide workers with water, rest, and shade. Many contractors these days also take advantage of new technology such as neck shades and cooling devices that can be attached to hard hats. Monitor workers for signs of illness. Unless there is a real plan in place with people assigned the responsibility to look out for others, especially new employees and temporary workers, it becomes too easy to overlook a coworker in distress

One step that must be included in a prevention program is acclimatization. As work picks up, we have more new workers who are not used to the heat. Those that have been away from work are most vulnerable to heat stress and must be acclimatized. Gradually increase workloads and allow frequent breaks for new workers, or workers who have been away for a week or more, to build a tolerance for working in the heat.

Know the signs

Everyone on the crew must understand the signs of heat-related illness and know to take immediate action.

  • Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. Symptoms include confusion, fainting, seizures, high body temperature, and hot, dry skin or profuse sweating. Heat stroke requires medical treatment to prevent possible death. Call 911.
  • Heat exhaustion happens when your body loses too much water and salt through sweating. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, thirst, and heavy sweating. Heat fatigue, heat cramps, and heat rash are less serious, but they are still signs of overexposure. Rest, cool off, and drink fluids. But if you feel any of the symptoms of heat-related illness, or you see a coworker in distress, take immediate action. If a coworker appears confused, it is probably a sign that his condition is progressing to heat stroke and needs medical care. Never send someone home or leave him alone if you suspect heat stroke. The confusion and altered mental state makes him unable to care for himself.

Putting a prevention plan in place, acclimatizing workers, and taking time to teach everyone about heat illness can mean the difference between life and death.

Jim Rogers is director of the Western OSHA Education Center at the Del E. Webb School of Construction, Arizona State University. E-mail [email protected].