Heat Related Injury and Illness: Keeping Your People Safe on Those Hot Summer Days

construction workers in sun

With summer right around the corner, Company leaders, foremen, and crew leaders should start considering the long hot days ahead. Knowing the signs and symptoms of heat related illness will help leadership limit exposure and severity when these issues do occur and ensure that employees get home safe to their families at the end of the workday.

Beyond simple employee safety, fatigue from heat exposure can factor into how safely an employee operates. Heat related fatigue can impair employee judgement. Employees with impaired judgement can have reduced reflexes and focus, which could make an employee a higher risk for other workplace accidents, injury, or even death for the fatigued employee and others onsite. Additionally, heat related fatigue can lower an employee’s drive and overall performance on the jobsite.

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Lower the risk of heat related injuries by limiting the amount of time your employees are directly in the sun. If feasible rotate employees between different jobs to limit sun exposure. Ensure there is a shaded areas available and encourage employees to take short breaks throughout the day. Having plenty of water available is critically important. One thing to note is that although cold water is refreshing, room temperature water will be absorbed into the body at a faster rate, thus helping your people to stay hydrated.

When possible, consider starting the workday earlier to avoid working in the hottest part of the day, and if that’s not possible, try to schedule easier work during that period. Again, consider rotating workers regularly to limit the time spent in the heat. It is also your field leaderships’ responsibility to make sure that employees have the appropriate PPE for conditions, i.e., hats or other style covers, when hard hats are not required. Ensuring your employees are taking short 10-minute breaks routinely and hydrating is important.

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worker drinking water

Conducting toolbox talks on the signs and symptoms of heat related injury and illness with employees and how to recognize these signs is highly important. Make sure that employees understand that abnormal behaviors sure as an employee being unusually lethargic, disorientated, or displaying altered speech can all be signs of heat related injuries.

As I mentioned earlier proper hydration is the best way to limit heat related injuries. Making sure that employees know that proper hydration starts the day before. Water is the best source of hydration, particularly when working in hot conditions. So-called “Sports” Drinks that contain a lot of sugar like Powerade and Gatorade can provide much needed electrolytes, but they should not be the sole source of hydration. There are many drink additives on the market that can be added to water to help with flavor and provide electrolytes without the added sugar.

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One thing that is often overlooked is extended exposure to sunlight and UV rays. Not only can this cause sunburn and possibly sun poisoning, but it can also cause long tern effects such as skin cancer, including melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer). Long term exposure to the sun can increase fatigue and employees can become lethargic, leading to more significant forms of heat illness.

One option is to have your employees limit their exposed skin by ensuring appropriate clothing. Another option is to ensure that proper sunscreen is readily available and that employees cover all exposed skin throughout the day with reapplication. This includes the back of the neck and behind the ears.

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When taking these factors into account, company leaders and foreman can limit the hazards of heat related illness and injury on those the hot (and busy) summer days ahead.

Mike Flowers is Director of Safety, Training and Education for National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA).

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