By Diane M. Calabrese / Published May 2020
It is summertime, and the workload is busy. For contractors trying to work at a brisk pace and comply with all personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements, things can get complicated—especially when it’s hot.
Working at the height of summer poses three big challenges: Adhere to PPE requirements no matter how hot it gets. Do not overheat. Avoid exposure to skin-damaging rays from the sun.
In addition to the big three, there are plenty more hot-weather concerns. Stinging, biting, and disease-carrying insects are among them. So are poisonous plants.
Let’s start with PPE, though, because it’s a confounding and complicating factor of heat stress. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a heat hazard emerges in workplaces with temperatures above 70°F when activities increase beyond a moderate workload. Now add PPE to the elevated load and the warm temperature.
Contractors are generally exposed to temperatures above 70°F during the summer. They get hot. Switching out boots for flipflops and wearing shorts are not options. PPE guidelines must be followed.
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recommends combining acclimatization and a careful choice of garments. If there’s been a steady run of 60°F days and suddenly days are consistently 80°F, workers can acclimate by increasing their activity gradually.
By taking more frequent breaks than they ordinarily would and working shorter intervals over the course of a few 80°F days, workers can acclimate. By choosing light-colored clothing and footwear (that still counts as PPE) of the lightest weight, they can reduce heat buildup.
Varying summer work schedules can also help keep everyone safe. When possible, contractors can pause from work during the hottest part of the day. With more hours of daylight, it’s possible to work early in the morning and into the evening.
High humidity exacerbates the effect of high temperature. When there is more moisture in the air, perspiration—the body’s natural mechanism for cooling—is less effective at removing body heat. If beads of sweat are forming on a person’s skin, the person is becoming overheated.
Reconciling required PPE with warm weather (or hot indoor) working conditions isn’t easy. Many individuals seek guidance from OSHA (directly or through their congressional representative). How does that go?
One senator’s constituent wanted to know about OSHA’s PPE standard regarding the use of hardhats. Specifically, the constituent was concerned about wearing a hardhat when working on a roof in hot weather.
OSHA replied that the hazard assessment was the responsibility of the employer and if the employer thought there was a hazard, the hat should be worn. Moreover, OSHA made it clear the employer was to make the correct call, which could only be known after an incident occurred (heat stress with hat, heat injury without). (See: www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2014-08-01 for the full reply to the senator.)
It’s worth noting that the OSHA reply we cite went on to list the protocols OSHA recommends employers follow to reduce heat-related illness among employees. The OSHA boiler plate in the letter also points to the thousands of workers who each year succumb to heat-related illness.
When an electrician working at an airport in Florida, who had for 10 years been wearing loose-fitting, light colored, lightweight clothing to better work in high heat and humidity, wrote OSHA, it was to ask why heavy flame-resistant uniforms had suddenly been mandated for all work. Prior to the mandate, the uniforms were worn only when working in front of a hot electrical circuit or about 10 percent of the time. (See www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2010-05-18 for full account and OSHA reply.)
OSHA put the onus for hazard assessment on the electrician’s employer and offered a list of its recommended protocols for working in heat. The electrician’s questions were never actually answered.
Guidance through interpretation of standards is provided by OSHA. The decision-making, which begins with hazard assessment, is unequivocally the responsibility of the employer.
So, as with adherence to all federal regulations, employers err on the side of caution. Hardhats for employees soft washing a roof even though nothing is expected to fly or fall, and protective gear in dangerous electrical (or chemical) environments, and so on, must be incorporated into the hottest worksite.
Just get it done.
“Water, rest, shade”—that’s the reminder OSHA repeats in the training tools it provides for working in hot weather. The OSHA Planning Checklists document (pdf)—only two pages—is a good starting point for those wanting to review their procedures. (See www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatillness/heat_index/ employer_checklist.html.)
One checklist is for planning ahead. The other serves as the template for daily planning.
The fundamental reminders from the daily list are to ascertain there is plenty of water as well as the opportunity to take breaks in shade or air conditioning. The list also notes what employees must know, including symptoms of heat-related illness, precautions to take, importance of acclimatization, and how to respond if a co-worker experiences symptoms of heat illness.
When the heat index (based on a combination of temperature and humidity) is greater than 115°F, OSHA recommends rescheduling all non-essential outdoor work. If that’s not possible (and it usually is for contractors), be sure to have some sort of buddy system or a supervisor on site so that signs of heat-related illness can be spotted immediately. Buddies and supervisors also ensure that everyone is taking breaks and drinking water.
OSHA-NIOSH offer an app that makes it possible to get a visual indication of heat index. (See www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/heatstress/heatapp.html.) The app also offers recommendations about precautions to take. Consequently, employers and employees have assistance as close as their smartphones.
Employee health can be a confounding factor in hot weather. Employees who carry extra weight, for example, may find it more difficult to work in hot weather and exhibit signs of heat illness sooner.
Levels of heat-related illness are outlined by OSHA in a short document. (See www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/heatrelated_illness_firstaid.html.) The same tabulation (levels, symptoms) is also available via the OSHA-NIOSH app.
Muscle cramps or pain, weakness, and heat rash are among the first signs of heat-related illness. Heat exhaustion is indicated by those signs and by nausea or vomiting, heavy sweating, elevated body temperature, and elevated heart rate. The most serious heat-related illness is heat stroke, which is indicated by confusion, slurred speech, unconsciousness, and seizures in addition to the other indicators.
OSHA advises cooling a stricken fellow worker by using ice if it is available or getting the worker into shade. Call 911 immediately if there is any indication of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Heat may not directly affect the health of employees, but it may increase risk from other sources. Volatile compound dispersal can be impeded, for example.
While coping with heat, those working outdoors must also take precautions to reduce exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun. UV is a known carcinogen.
Applying sunscreen to face and hands, if possible, helps. Try not to expose skin to direct, intense UV light for any length of time, and wear lenses that cut down on UV light, which will reduce the likelihood of cataracts when older.
Finally, an orderly, coherently staged worksite is very important in summer. Structure and planning make it easier to complete a job in the shortest possible time, as well as work outside the direct rays of the sun as much as possible.
Focus fosters order. Listening to music and talking on the phone may all be possible hands-free and cumbersome device-free, but either activity can impair judgment, so be careful.
As for singing to oneself the many great lyrics that capture the bounty of summer…well, just don’t get carried away.