As we head into the summer, temperatures will be climbing, the sun will be searing, and in many parts of the country, humidity will be soaring.
These factors — individually and together — pose threats to the health of OPCMIA members, because they put strains on the body’s ability to get rid of excess heat to maintain a stable internal temperature, especially given the intense physical activity required on the jobsite.
As the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notes, every year, dozens of workers die and thousands more become ill while working in extreme heat or humid conditions. More than 40 percent of heat-related worker deaths occur in the construction industry.
The Dangers of Heat Illness
There are a range of heat illnesses and they can affect anyone, no matter your age or physical condition. Conditions to watch out for include:
- Heat stroke, the most serious form of heat-related illness. This happens when the body becomes unable to regulate its core temperature. Sweating stops and the body can no longer rid itself of excess heat. Signs include confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures. This is a life-threatening medical emergency! Call 911 immediately.
- Heat exhaustion, the body’s response to loss of water and salt from heavy sweating. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, and heavy sweating.
- Heat cramps, caused by the loss of body salts and fluid during sweating. Tired muscles—those used for performing the work—are usually the ones most affected by cramps. Cramps may occur during or after working hours.
- Heat rash, also known as prickly heat. This is skin irritation caused by sweat that does not evaporate from the skin. Heat rash is the most common problem in hot work environments.
What Employers Must Do to Protect You
Under the law, employers are responsible for providing workplaces free of known safety hazards — including protecting workers from extreme heat. Any employer with workers exposed to high temperatures should establish a complete heat illness prevention program focused on these key elements:
- Provide workers with water, rest and shade. Workers must have adequate drinking water close to the work area, and should drink small amounts frequently. Rather than being exposed to heat for extended periods of time, workers should, wherever possible, be allowed to distribute the workload evenly over the day and incorporate work/rest cycles. And if possible, physical demands should be reduced during hot weather, or heavier work scheduled for cooler times of the day
- Allow new or returning workers to gradually increase workloads and take more frequent breaks as they acclimatize, or build a tolerance for working in the heat.
- Plan for emergencies and train workers on prevention. Workers should be on the alert for symptoms of heat-related illness and be prepared to administer appropriate first aid to anyone who is developing a heat-related illness.
- Monitor workers for signs of illness. Even when employees are looking out for one another, this is still an employer responsibility.
What You Can Do
If you feel your employer is not providing you with these protections — or if you or any of your co-workers suffers from heat-related illness at any time — please tell your foreman immediately. You can also share your concerns with your job steward, your Local’s business agent and your Local’s business manager.
Safety always comes first. So as the saying goes, if you see something, say something! And please stay safe throughout the summer.