Cool Ways to Keep Workers Cool

Heat is a frequently underestimated hazard for workers toiling in the summer sun. When the body's core temperature begins to rise and the heart rate increases, an individual begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing on a task, may become irritable or sick, and often loses the desire to drink water. If the individual’s body temperature is not brought down, he or she can faint, lose consciousness and even die.

Even if the sun’s rays don’t zap you like an electrical current doesn’t mean high temperatures should be ignored, especially for those doing strenuous work outdoors or in hot, enclosed spaces. A worker who seems lethargic or unfocused may be suffering from heat stress or displaying early signs of heat stroke, an immediate threat to life. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an average of 30 workers die from heat stroke every year.

OSHA’s campaign to reduce heat illness and death gives a clear message to employers: “Water – Rest - Shade.” You probably have coolers for your abundant supply of water and paper cups, but are they the best ways to ensure a worker’s safety from overheating?

Cooling Strategies

Fortunately for workers and concerned employers, manufacturers have come up with some new ways to keep workers cool—and productive.

The good news: you don't have to go hunting for this information. It’s been compiled for you within Construction Solutions, a website developed by the nonprofit research institution CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. The site offers links to a Heat Stress Program that you can put to work on the first day of a heat wave.

Experts suggest checking out the products that provide relief. Tents and shade canopies remove workers from direct sunlight during work or rest breaks and reduce the symptoms of heat stress. You’ll even find “misting tents” that refresh workers with a light water spray while sitting in the shade. Fans, misters and air-conditioning units, all portable and easy to use, are available in a wide price range.

Workers can get extra help from cooling vests and other remarkable heat-reducing personal protective equipment (PPE) as well. A cooling bandana, cooling headband, or cooling hard hat liner might reduce the effects of the energy-sapping sun.

Extra Precautions

Of course, there are plenty of precautions you can offer to workers when temperatures spike:

  • After working in moderate or breezy weather, the first week of a heat wave can be shock to the system, so go easy for the first week in the heat.
  • Wear light clothing, including a shirt that serves as a shield from the sun's rays.
  • Drink 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes. Don't wait until you feel thirsty.
  • Plan the day to tackle tougher jobs during the cooler morning hours.

Finally, make sure supervisors watch workers for signs of heat illness. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headaches, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, weakness, moist skin, mood changes such as irritability or confusion, upset stomach and vomiting. More serious still, symptoms of heat stroke include dry, hot skin with no sweating, mental confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures and convulsions. Heat stroke is a medical emergency requiring a 911 call and immediate cooling.

For a “toolbox talk” on preventing heat illness, check out "Hot Weather" on CPWR’s website full of construction safety and health handouts, training materials and videos, eLCOSH.

About the Authors

Mary Watters, MFA, is director of communications for CPWR. Jean Christophe Le, MPH, is the project content manager for the Construction Solutions database.