Extreme Heat Is Deadly. Here’s What Construction Companies Should Do to Protect Workers

OSHA and other agencies offer extensive guidance and tips on how to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths.

Jean Dimeo, Editorial Director, ConstructioNext, WOC360, IRE360

May 8, 2024

5 Min Read
Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Each year, thousands of construction and other workers fall ill because of extreme heat—and too many die as a result. But there are precautions and actions construction companies can take to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths.  

 Most outdoor fatalities occur during the first few days the worker is exposed to hot weather because the body needs to build heat tolerance gradually over time. The lack of “heat acclimatization” is a major risk factor in fatal outcomes, according to OSHA. 

 OSHA and other government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, don’t have a heat stress mandate, but they do provide extensive guidance for construction and other firms that employ workers who do physical work outside. Here is a roundup their research and best recommendations. 

 Causes of Heat-Related Illnesses 

There are several factors that cause heat-related illness, including:  

  • High temperature and humidity. 

  • Direct sun exposure.  

  • No breeze or wind. 

  • No recent exposure to a hot jobsite. 

  • Low liquid intake. 

  • Waterproof clothing. 

Construction company owners and managers need to recognize heat-related illnesses and act quickly. According to CDC, they are

  • Heat stroke—a medical emergency that can be fatal or cause permanent disability. Symptoms include high body temperature; confusion; loss of coordination; hot, dry skin or profuse sweating; throbbing headache; seizures; and/or coma.  

If an employee or sub exhibits signs of heat stroke, call 911 immediately and then move the worker to a cool, shaded area. Cool the person quickly with cold water or an ice bath. Remove their outer clothing and apply iced bedsheets or cooling packs, if available, to their chest, armpits and groin. Continue cooling the worker until medical help arrives (unless the worker is shivering, then cover with a blanket or clothing item). 

  • Heat exhaustion—the body’s response to excessive dehydration and loss of electrolytes that can quickly progress to heat stroke. Symptoms include rapid heart rate; excessive sweating; extreme weakness or fatigue; dizziness; nausea or vomiting; irritability; rapid, shallow breathing; and/or a slightly elevated body temperature.  

Move this worker to a cool area. Loosen their clothing and encourage them to drink plenty of water or other cool beverages. If available, allow them to take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath.  

Call 911 if the worker’s condition worsens or if there is no improvement within 15 minutes. 

  • Heat cramps—the body’s impact on workers who sweat profusely during strenuous construction activity. Symptoms include muscle cramps, pain or spasms in the abdomen, arms or legs.  

Have the person stop working and sit in a cool place. Encourage them to drink clear juice or a sports beverage, or drink water with food. Do not allow the person to engage in strenuous work for a few hours after the cramps subside.  

Seek medical attention if the cramps do not subside within one hour. 

Steps for Preventing Heat-Related Symptoms 

Although it’s not possible to stop all work in hot weather, there are ways to prevent or alleviate heat-related illnesses, according to OSHA and other agencies.  

OSHA, CDC and others say construction and other firms can: 

  • Establish a heat illness prevention program.  

  • Provide training about the hazards leading to heat stress and how to prevent them.  

  • Provide a lot of cool water for workers, at least one pint per hour. Remind workers to drink often and before they get thirsty.  

  • Ask workers to avoid beverages containing caffeine.  

  • Instruct managers and supervisors, in writing, to ensure there is adequate supply on-site of cool liquids and rest areas, first-aid materials and other items such as ice packs, iced bedsheets and a child’s wading pool that can be quickly filled with cool water. 

  • Provide a large container of cool water for workers to immerse their hands and forearms, which reduces skin and core temperature. 

  • Increase workloads gradually in extreme heat. 

  • Modify work schedules and arrange frequent rest periods with water breaks in shaded areas or air-conditioned spaces. 

  • Reduce workdays and restrict double shifts. 

  • Schedule certain jobs for the cooler part of the day and/or schedule them for alternate days. 

  • Restrict overtime and eliminate piecework incentives. 

  • Allow more frequent breaks for new or returning workers so they can acclimate over time. 

  • Add extra workers to reduce heat exposure for each crew member, allowing the job to continue while some workers rest. 

  • Block out direct sun and other heat sources.  

  • Automate parts of the work when possible, such as using a backhoe instead of picks and shovels. 

  • Schedule routine maintenance for cooler months when possible. 

  • Designate someone on-site to monitor conditions.  

  • Check workers’ core temperatures.  

  • Require employees and subs to stop working when they feel symptoms. 

  • Send workers for a medical evaluation if they show extreme symptoms, and require written permission to return to work. 

  • Encourage workers to wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing.  

Managers should gradually increase workers' time on a hot jobsite over a two-week period. Because nearly three out of four workers who die from heat-related causes die during their first week on the job, according to OSHA, new workers should work only 20% of the time in the heat on their first day and then 20% more time each subsequent day. 

Experiencedworkers should be limited to 50% on the first day, 60% on Day 2 and 80% on Day 3. They can work full time on the fourth day.  

About the Author(s)

Jean Dimeo

Editorial Director, ConstructioNext, WOC360, IRE360, Informa Markets

Jean Dimeo is an award-winning editor, writer and publication manager who has worked in construction publishing for 30 years. Dimeo was managing editor of Construction Dive, our sister publication about commercial construction, and the editor in chief of Builder, EcoHome and Building Products, all about residential building and remodeling. She also worked as an editor for a Spanish-language construction publication and as a building products expert for consumer magazines including Better Homes & Gardens SIPs.

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