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Broiling summer heat, an aging workforce and a booming construction industry in some areas of the country are raising concerns about heat-related illness risks for workers.
While employers across the U.S. are expected under federal law to keep workers safe from illnesses brought on by the heat by at least providing water, rest and shade, they also can stagger work times, monitor the heat index and provide cooling devices, experts say.
In California, employers soon will be required to provide additional protection for employees working in the sun or other hot environments.
Legislation, which was signed into law in June and takes effect Jan. 1, 2015, addresses the ambiguity of a prior California labor law that specified the need for recovery periods to prevent heat-related illness, but it did not say that such rest periods must be paid, said Ryan Kilcullen, California casualty risk control manager in Willis Group Holdings P.L.C.'s risk control and claims advocacy practice in Los Angeles.
“Employees should be compensated fairly for following the heat illness standard,” Mr. Kilcullen said. “If they're recognizing that they're having symptoms of heat-related illness, one of the first steps you need to take under the heat illness standards is a break.”
“Workers should not be forced to choose between their health and their wages,” state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, the author of the bill, said in an email.
Agriculture, construction and landscaping workers are most at risk due to the heat, experts say, but indoor workers also can be victims when poor air circulation and heavy protective gear are involved.
At least 3,000 heat-related illnesses among workers occur a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that number has declined slightly in recent years, “the more workers you have, the greater amount of exposure you have,” said Ronald Sokol, president and CEO of the Safety Council of Texas City, Texas, where a construction boom is underway, particularly homebuilding.
“Generally, the contractors that are working in the home building industry don't have as sophisticated safety and health protective systems or programs and procedures as you'd find in a lot of the larger industrial environments,” Mr. Sokol said.
High temperatures are just one concern as the workforce ages, Mr. Kilcullen said.
“Someone can have heat-related illness by working in moderate temperatures because if you're aging, your metabolic rate isn't what it used to be when you were in your 30s and possibly 40s,” he said. “That metabolic rate plays a huge factor in how you can acclimate and how you can handle a job in heat.”
A general rule of thumb for employers is to “start looking at what the heat index is and what type of work they're doing” once it gets above 80 to 85 degrees, said Dennis Gardner, Hartford, Connecticut-based technical manager of the loss control team for construction at The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.
New and temporary workers also are at risk since the body takes seven to 14 days to adjust to a new climate and workload, Mr. Sokol said.
“The acclimation process is really a key component,” said Mr. Gardner. “Even a worker who's used to working in a heavy-labor type of job in a hot environment, if they're out of that environment for a week or two weeks ... they have to be reacclimated.”
In addition to providing water, electrolytes, rest and shade, and educating workers about heat stress, Cindy DePrater, Dallas-based vice president of environmental health and safety at Turner Construction Co., said making sure workers have access to cool wraps for their necks or inside their hard hats helps protect them.
Another strategy is changing work hours.
“I've seen them pour concrete at midnight to 6 a.m. and then shut the project down after 11 in the morning,” she said.
“Or they make sure no outside work is going on during certain periods of time.”
Setting misting fans up along fences or in break areas not only helps cool workers off but also controls dust around mortar mixing operations, Ms. DePrater said.
But what works on one job site might not work on another, and Ms. DePrater said each of Turner's business units “all recognize their version of what heat looks like and what it does to workers.”
Fans that increase airflow and reduce the overall temperature and humidity might be a better option in certain cases, Mr. Kilcullen said.
“Misters decrease the air temperature, but they increase the humidity, so that's kind of a double-edged sword,” he said.
“You need to identify the risk and choose the right control for every situation.”
Regardless of the risk factors in play, the most important thing to remember is that “thirst is not an adequate barometer” of adequate fluid intake, Mr. Sokol said.
“If you only drink every time you're thirsty, you're going to be in a deficit,'' he said.
“You really have to hydrate yourself in the morning before you get started and continue to replenish your fluids as you work through the day.”
ORLANDO, Fla. — Work-related injuries and fatalities occur when people stop thinking about potential risks and rely too heavily on safety protections that are already in place, says one safety expert.