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5 Ways To Improve Construction Heat Illness Prevention Programs

Three construction workers are taking a break at a construction site. One worker is seated in the foreground, wearing a safety vest and headphones, while enjoying a sandwich and a drink. Another worker stands in the background, holding food, and a third worker is seen holding a drink. They are surrounded by construction materials and the structure of an unfinished building, emphasizing the importance of rest and refreshment during hard work.

Summer isn’t the only season to be aware of the health and safety risks that come with extreme heat. Although, as temperatures increase so does the risk of heat-related illnesses, a serious concern that construction employers can no longer afford to overlook.

The peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, reported that in 2021 more than 2.5 billion hours of labor were lost across key industries, including construction. This statistic underscores the urgent need for comprehensive construction heat illness prevention programs. Such initiatives are not just a matter of regulatory compliance or corporate responsibility — they are a strategic investment in the workforce. By prioritizing the health and safety of their teams, construction employers can create a safer environment for their workers — while simultaneously bolstering productivity and mitigating financial losses. As we delve into the multifaceted approach to combating heat-related health and safety challenges, remember that the foundation of any successful industry lies in the well-being of its labor force. Let’s explore how proactive measures and innovative strategies can create safer work environments, even under the sweltering sun.


How Can Heat Illness Impact Construction Projects?

When considering the impact of heat-related illnesses on the jobsite, it is important to note that it isn’t just the heat, it’s the humidity. It’s not just the lack of shade, it’s the lack of air flow. It’s all these and a range of personal risk factors like age, diet and a worker’s ability to tolerate or acclimate to higher temperatures. 

There are a host of factors that could lead to heat illness and prevention is a year-round job for employers. Construction businesses that don’t prepare for these threats are at risk of facing several negative consequences.

Heat illness can have a significant impact on construction projects. Most importantly, it can lead to recordable injuries, hospitalizations, or fatalities. These misfortunes then must be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and can result in inspections, citations, and fines. 

Additionally, heat illness can reduce the productivity and performance of workers, especially if they are not acclimated, hydrated, or rested enough. It can also cause workers to leave the job or contribute to absenteeism, which can affect the project timeline and budget. Furthermore, heat illness can damage the reputation and credibility of the contractor or construction company, especially if they do not have an established construction heat illness prevention program or trained supervisors and employees. If you neglect to provide an adequate heat illness prevention program and your workers feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or ignored, they will spread the word to other construction workers. 

What Are A Few Heat Illness Factors Unique to Construction?

Heat illness prevention should be applied to all industries where workers are at risk. Construction comes with a few obvious risks like exposure to the sun, long hours and physical exertion. There are some lesser-known heat illness factors unique to construction that workers and employers should be aware of. 

Heat Acclimation

Construction employers know that their industry can involve high worker attrition. They may hire and onboard new workers throughout the lifecycle of a project. This often means hiring workers who may have never worked a construction job. These novices aren’t likely to adapt to heat as well as workers who have been on the jobsite for weeks or months.

Those new to construction or who haven’t worked in the heat for some time, need an acclimation period. This would be a span of time where they are allowed to work in conditions that slowly increase their heat tolerance. Not only is this safer for workers but giving them time to adjust to the stresses of the job could lead to increased retention.

Tough Work, Tougher Mentality

Construction work is tough. It requires tough people working together to get the job done. This idea of “toughness” can foster an unhealthy mentality and lack of communication on the jobsite. The attitude of “this is my job and I’m going to do it without complaining” might be seen as admirable to their coworkers, but construction workers need to report any signs of heat illness as soon as possible, and they need to feel they can communicate that in a way that doesn’t put them in the spotlight.

5 Heat-Illness Related OSHA Violations to Avoid

Heat illness is a serious concern in the construction industry, and it is important to take proactive measures to prevent it. Any quality construction heat illness program will aim to reduce or eliminate actions that could lead to OSHA violations. These regulations are in place to protect workers from heat-related illnesses, and failure to comply with these regulations can result in citations and fines. Here are five heat-illness related OSHA violations to avoid on your construction site.

Lack of Heat Acclimatization Programs

As mentioned earlier, heat acclimatization is a serious concern for construction employers and employees. Some workers will adjust to new conditions easier than others, but OSHA’s “Rule of 20 Percent” establishes that on their first day, workers should only work 20 percent of their “normal duration”. Each ensuing day, their duration should be increased by 20 percent until they are up to a normal duration. Some workers may require longer, but this rule is a solid guide for introducing new workers to what can be very laborious and dangerous work. 

Keep in mind that several factors play a role in heat acclimatization including the type of work being done, the work environment and the personal risk factors of the workers. Construction managers, supervisors and employees should be trained and aware of the signs and symptoms of heat illness and how to prevent it.

Inadequate Access to Water and Shade

Construction sites are incredibly busy environments and workers are constantly on the move.

When I think of the challenges in providing adequate water and shade, I think about the work being done on solar construction sites. These are typically large areas of land where shade (other than under the solar panels) is hard to find. In these areas it is critical that workers have access to shade, air-conditioned trailers or offices.

Sites like this where it can be difficult to find relief from the heat or sun also require hydration and cool down breaks. Having someone navigate the jobsite to offer workers water, cooling towels, hard hats with an extended brim or other remedies can help you avoid disaster. 

Insufficient Rest Breaks and Cool-Down Relief

Workers accustomed to the labor-intensive nature of construction work tend to be better conditioned and have a better understanding of their limits. However, construction sites also include workers who may have never labored in this type of environment. They may have transferable skills from their previous jobs, but they likely aren’t prepared for working in the middle of a field where the sun is constantly bearing down on them.

Affording construction workers the ability to get to a space where they can rest and cool down is extremely important. Especially in areas where the humidity compounds the heat illness risk factors. Setting up tent structures, providing sun reflective and/or breathable shirts and providing opportunities for breaks help guarantee the safety of your workforce. 

Neglecting Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Adjustments

PPE is one of the more challenging factors of avoiding heat illness and OSHA violations. Construction often requires PPE that restricts how the body dissipates heat. Heavy boots, face shields and gloves are necessary, but if adjustments aren’t made, then they can contribute to exhaustion. 

Offering workers clothing or accessories that combat heat is a good way to adjust to warmer conditions. Items like cooling towels, hard hats with brim sunshades and reflective clothing will help reduce the risks of working in high temperatures.

The sun and heat are part of the job in construction, but construction companies can go beyond adjusting PPE to create a safer jobsite. When applicable, scheduling shifts earlier in the day and providing more breaks later in the day allows workers to escape the sun during the hours when it is most dangerous (generally 11am-3pm). Rotating workers so that everyone has an ability to cooldown is also helpful in mitigating the risks of heat illness. 

Failure to Provide Heat Illness Prevention Training

Construction managers and companies are ultimately responsible for creating a safe and secure work environment. They also play the leading role in ensuring workers are educated on the specifics of heat illness prevention. 

A crucial first step in providing heat illness prevention training is to have a comprehensive plan to make sure that that everyone knows who oversees the daily processes of the program. Outlining who will ensure that workers are provided with the correct PPE, are taking the necessary cool down breaks and that they understand the symptoms of heat illness should be a priority.

It all begins with the prevention plan itself and then providing people with adequate training to teach them what the signs and symptoms are, and how to escalate them. This reduces the time it takes for supervisors to be made aware of an issue and provide the right solution. 

Building A Construction Heat Illness Prevention Program

Construction employers must prioritize the health and safety of their workers by implementing comprehensive heat illness prevention programs. This not only shows you care for your workers and value their safety, but it also helps to mitigate financial losses.

By avoiding the five heat-related OSHA violations we outlined above, construction companies can reduce the occurrences of heat illnesses and worker burnout. 

To learn more about how Aerotek’s Construction Support Services can address the health and safety concerns of your workforce, contact us.