I’m a Safety Director for Alliant Insurance Services, a national insurance broker. I’m based in Southern California, and I work with production builders in this region to help them train their supervisors, employees, and trade contractors in effective safety practices, including compliance with Cal/OSHA regulations.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been participating in the Southern California Builder Safety Alliance (SCBSA), a group made up of safety officers from some of the production builders in the area. In January and February of this year, parts of California were already starting to see hot weather, and Cal/OSHA jobsite inspectors started to focus on heat-illness prevention. So SCBSA decided to refamiliarize its people with hot-weather safety.
Unlike most of the country, California enforces a specific rule to protect employees, including construction workers, working outside in hot weather. The basic rule kicks in when temperatures hit 80°F on the jobsite, and additional rules apply when it gets to 95°F. Failing to comply with Cal/OSHA heat illness–prevention rules can bring fines—or, in extreme cases, shut down your jobsite.
Federal OSHA regulations don’t include a specific standard that addresses the risk of heat injury. But the “general duty” clause, which requires employers to provide a safe workplace, has been used in various states to penalize employers for exposing workers to unsafe conditions related to hot weather. And no matter what state you build in, the practices we’re teaching here are good ways to keep yourself and your workers safe during a heat wave. In the next few pages, I’ll take a look at the basic elements of hot-weather safety.
Defining Hot Weather
When the mercury tops 80°F, California worker safety rules require employers to take appropriate measures besides the usual requirement to provide drinking water. These include providing a shady rest area for breaks and meals, and having your supervisors and employees trained in recognizing the signs of heat illness. You also need to have a written plan for responding to either a minor heat illness or a life-threatening emergency.
When the temperature hits 95°F, an additional requirement for “high heat procedures” kicks in. In that case, supervisors have to conduct daily pre-shift meetings to review high-heat safety risks and procedures, and they need to monitor employees during the shift for symptoms of heat illness. Supervisors have to be in regular communication—either by direct line of sight or at least by phone or radio. Another option is to set up a formal “buddy system” in which employees keep an eye on each other for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Water and Shade
When a person is working hard in hot weather, the body cools itself by sweating and evaporation from the skin. The body loses water, and blood volume decreases. So we need to replace that water. In hot weather, supervisors should constantly remind workers to drink plenty of water—before they start, while they’re working, and during breaks. Under high-heat conditions, those rest breaks should be more frequent.
How much water? The rules require employers to supply enough water for every employee to drink a quart an hour for the whole working shift, free of charge. For an 8-hour day, for example, that means two gallons per worker.
You have lots of choices for how you supply the water: You can set up a large container with paper cups, install a drinking fountain, or give each worker his or her own water container. If you do supply individual containers, they have to be labeled with the worker’s name. And there has to be an easy way to replenish the supplies when they run low. I was on site when a client of mine was cited by Cal/OSHA for an empty water dispenser: The inspector picked up the jug and shook it, and there was nothing in there but ice. One good solution I’ve seen is to hang a sign on the water spigot, and designate one employee to check the water jug and top it off each hour, checking off the sign each time.
Workers need periodic breaks to cool off, and the employer has to provide a shaded area for that purpose. There has to be enough shade to shelter all the workers who might require a rest break at the same time. The employer should also provide seating; workers should not have to sit on the hot ground.
And the shade has to be effective: If there’s enough sunlight coming through the shading fabric to cast a shadow in the shelter, it’s not enough shade. In the language of the standard, the shade has to be “as close as practicable” to the work area. For employees working on a roof, the shelter might have to be down on the ground. But you don’t want it to be a half-mile down the road.
Planning for Emergencies
Heat illness is no laughing matter. It can be deadly. The effects can proceed rapidly from the minor discomfort of heat fatigue, easily treatable with good hydration and a rest break, to the life-threatening condition of heat stroke, requiring immediate first aid and a quick call to emergency services.
In the case of an emergency, you don’t want your people having to figure out what to do on the spot. You want them trained in advance. Designate one person ahead of time to call emergency services. And make sure that the person knows how to give directions to the jobsite. In our market here in Southern California, a lot of the work is happening on new developments, and it can take years before some of these new streets and cul-de-sacs show up on Google Maps. Even if the street is marked with a street sign, the ambulance driver may not be able to find it. When you’re working in that environment, you should identify the nearest cross street that is in Google Maps, in advance. When you call emergency services, send a ground guide to that location to meet the ambulance and bring the responders to the injured person.
The best way to respond to a heat illness is to see it coming and prevent it. The California standard requires employers to train their supervisors and workers to identify dangerously hot weather, to recognize the signs of heat illness, and to take appropriate steps to prevent and treat the conditions. Employees should be trained to notice when another worker is going from bad to worse.
Acclimatization is important in the early summer, when hot weather first occurs. And here in California, a person might be working in 70°F weather on the coast, drive inland for an hour, and find themselves in the desert working at 105°F on the same day. It can take the body a couple of weeks to adjust to a change like that.
Heat fatigue is a relatively mild condition that occurs when a worker isn’t acclimatized to the heat or isn’t drinking enough water. The signs include discomfort, impaired performance on skilled tasks, inability to concentrate, and a feeling of weakness and tiredness. No medical treatment is required, but rest and hydration breaks are recommended while the worker adjusts.
Heat exhaustion is more severe; the signs include dizziness, faintness, nausea, headache, and heavy sweating. Workers with heat exhaustion should be moved to a cool shaded area, cooled off with fans and a water spray, and provided with cool water to drink.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency requiring immediate first aid and a call to emergency services. The key signs include hot, dry skin and elevated body core temperature, because the body’s cooling mechanism (sweating) has failed. Confusion and disorientation are also signs of heat stroke. Move the victim to a cool, shady location, cool them with cold water and ice on the armpits or groin, remove excess clothing, and dial 911 immediately.