With summer coming quickly and forecasts suggesting another hot season, now is the time to review and train your teams on the signs of heat illness and prepare to take steps to prevent it.
Between 2011 and 2019, 344 people died from work-related heat exposure, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 42%, or 144, of those fatalities were workers in construction, repair or cleaning.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted about 200 heat-related inspections each year, with about 15 heat-related fatality inspections, often resulting in citations. But the number of fatalities may be underreported, as the cause of death can be attributed to heart attack—even if it was brought on by heat exposure.
OSHA is still working on its new heat injury and illness prevention standard, according to Rich Trewyn, enterprise risk management director for the National Roofing Contractors Association. “It is anticipated that they will begin the process of engaging small business entities for stakeholder input in the very near future,” he said.
That standard could implement an 80-degree threshold for when the heat injury illness prevention standards apply. Meanwhile, OSHA plans to increase enforcement around heat illness prevention and inspections. The organization also recently launched its Beat the Heat contest, a nationwide competition for stakeholders in all industries to share their best tools and other resources for informing workers about the dangers of heat exposure in indoor and outdoor workplaces.
Whatever happens on the regulatory fronts, rising temperatures—along with better understanding of heat illness—mean it’s more important than ever for roofing and exterior companies to protect workers, said Christee Holbrook, owner and president of Graham Roofing and safety chair of Associated Builders and Contractors’ Mississippi chapter.
In addition, Holbrook said a combination of older workers and new recruits increases the risk factor significantly. “I have an older workforce now, so it’s harder for them to stand the heat than it used to be,” she said. “And the heat has gotten more extreme—it’s definitely hotter than it used to be, and more humid.”
Still, Holbrook and Trewyn said there are simple steps roofing and exterior companies can take to protect workers. Here are six recommendations and ideas for implementing them:
1. Educate yourself and your supervisors.
Just as the heat has risen, so has the science around heat injury prevention, Holbrook said. Even though she’s been in the industry for 54 years, she noted that she’s still learning new information about heat illness and prevention every year—and it’s up to owners and supervisors to do the same and ensure they have the latest information.
OSHA offers a wealth of prevention information as does NRCA, including Toolbox Talks on the subject, sample heat prevention programs and a soon-to-be-released heat prevention toolkit.
“We’re all smarter on heat injury illness than we used to be,” Holbrook said. “So, take the time to educate yourself, and put a heat illness prevention plan in place.”
OSHA outlines the key elements of such a plan, along with suggestions for supervision.
2. Train workers early and often.
As soon as the weather starts to warm up, Holbrook said owners and supervisors need to start training workers about heat injury and prevention.
“We do safety talks constantly about the heat,” she said.
Holbrook also provides charts that outline the dangers of heat illness and the signs to watch for. A good example is the Hazard Alert from the Center for Construction Research and Training. Holbrook also provides a human diagram that shows where the symptoms occur.
“These are all just reminders to make it easy for them to look at and understand,” she said.
3. Keep workers well-hydrated.
Drinking enough water in hot weather takes more than most people think. Workers should be encouraged to drink at least one cup (8 ounces) of water every 20 minutes while working in the heat—and not just if they are thirsty, according to OSHA.
Trewyn said staying hydrated becomes even more difficult if workers drink alcohol the night before or caffeinated beverages during the day. Holbrook provides workers with Gatorade, which provides electrolytes as well as hydration. She also packs coolers with frozen popsicles, which is a fun way for workers to stay cool.
“It used to be just an occasional thing,” she said, “but last year with the heat being so bad, we just said, ‘Let’s start packing popsicles every day.’”
4. Acclimatize workers, but don’t assume it’s a silver bullet.
Acclimatization “means that the body gradually adapts and tolerates higher levels of heat stress,” according to OSHA. This process is especially important for new workers since almost half of heat-related deaths occur on a worker’s very first day on the job and over 70% of heat-related deaths occur during a worker’s first week, the agency said.
“Work hours should be gradually increased so a worker’s body gets accustomed to the heat,” Trewyn said. But Holbrook warned that acclimation doesn’t completely prevent heat illness.
“For years, the belief was that once you get acclimated, you’re fine,” she said. “Well, that’s not the case. You still have to take other preventative measures.”
5. Provide easy access to shade and cooling.
Just giving crews breaks isn’t enough in the heat. They need to rest in shade and cool to recover, according to OSHA. Holbrook puts tents on the roof along with fans inside them to cool workers down on breaks.
She also gives workers three different options to cool down while working: cooling towels that can be worn around the head or neck; tents that sit atop hard hats for additional sun protection; and hard hat disks designed to go inside the helmet that can be dipped in water to keep heads cool. Regardless of which method workers choose what’s important is that they use something.
“It’s not even an option anymore,” Holbrook said. “We tell them, ‘We’re providing all of this, and you need to take advantage of it.’”
6. Start and end work earlier.
Holbrook said this is one of the most effective prevention tactics she’s used in all her years. That means workers come in to work at 5 a.m. and end work between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.—before the worst heat of the day hits.
“That worked really well last year,” Holbrook said, “and we didn’t have any problems.”
Additionally, she said when temperatures soar, she discourages working overtime or on weekends to give workers more time to recover from the heat.