Taking the Heat out of the Job: Construction Work Is Hazardous Enough. but When Summer Brings Sweltering Temperatures, Workers Have to Be Extra Careful to Not Let Heat Overcome Them. One Company-Turner Construction-Is Taking Heat Stress Prevention to New Heights
Torres, Katherine, Occupational Hazards
Escaping the heat while working outdoors in the summer is a challenge. But when the job involves constant drilling, lifting heavy loads or pouring hot asphalt, it becomes almost impossible to stay cool.
The challenge of preventing heat stress for outdoor workers has garnered a lot of attention, so much so that several states already regulate heat stress prevention for outdoor workers. In California, for instance, a spike in the number of heat-related work fatalities led the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to adopt a permanent heat stress standard in June 2006. Likewise, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in the state of Washington issued an emergency heat stress rule that modified an already existing rule on indoor temperature exposure to make it applicable to outdoor workers as well.
But in many states around the country, workers still depend on the goodwill of their employers. For Turner Construction, a New York-based commercial construction firm with more than 45 offices in the United States and more around the world, the motto of "every worker goes home from each of our jobs, every day" not only is applicable to the slew of hazards found in construction work--slip and falls, confined spaces, etc.--but to heat stress as well. Many Turner projects are scheduled for hot climates, according to Cindy DePrater, director of safety for Turner Construction's Midwest region.
DePrater notes that while it is almost impossible to escape the heat while working under a hot summer sun, preventing heat stress is possible. Already lauded for its comprehensive safety programs (OSHA has acknowledged Turner as a model of accident prevention in practice), Turner Construction's take on heat stress is taking action before it becomes a problem.
"We try to promote these topics [heat stress prevention] before it ever gets to a stage when it becomes a serious issue," DePrater says.
Awareness Is Key
DePrater says one of the ways the company handles heat stress prevention is through proper awareness, which starts the moment the worker is hired.
During orientation, the worker is instructed on the types of heat stress, which include heat exhaustion, heat cramps and the most serious type, heat stroke. Workers also are taught to look out for the warning signs of heat stress when working in extreme temperatures, not only for themselves but also among their colleagues.
"We have instituted buddy systems where people on the same crews are watching out for one another because they may not know that they are faltering," DePrater says. "But if you have someone watching out for you and vice versa, it's the best they can do because at least they are working around somebody."
In addition to being on the lookout for telltale signs of heat stress--headaches, dizziness/ lightheadedness, weakness, mood changes (irritable or confused), queasiness, vomiting, pale and clammy skin and fainting--workers and foremen are instructed to get help when there is evidence that a coworker is suffering from heat stress. Even subcontractors are expected to adhere to Turner's heat stress policies; it appears in their contracts, according to DePrater.
"We make sure that they understand that if you have any doubts about what is happening to a co-worker or if you have somebody down, to immediately call 9-1-1," DePrater says. "Then we will get somebody out there to help. We keep people on the job who are CPR- and first aid-trained."
Specialized training on heat stress became valuable for Cynthia Barnes, a safety administrator who has been with Turner Construction for more than 8 years. She recounted that last June while out at a job site in Arizona, a worker who was on his first day on the job complained of nausea and being lightheaded after 4 hours of toiling in the hot desert sun. Co-workers gave him wet towels and fluids as they were instructed during training. …