Hot Stuff: Sizing Up Safety Amid a Sizzling Summer
I grew up hearing my Mom make that observation every summer when temperatures in my central Virginia hometown made its way into the 90s. Hers was more a statement of acceptance than lament; as our 1920s-era house had no air conditioning, there really wasn’t much we could do about it except run the big floor fans and open every available window in hopes of catching any breath of a breeze at some point during the day or night.
Those in construction and other jobs performed outside or in un-cooled spaces are similarly resigned to carrying on through the heat during much of the year. Indeed, many people seem to thrive in such environments, preferring “sweating it out” over having to bundle up against the cold or being idled by rain and snow, when no work can often mean no pay.
During this summer of 2023, however, the resilience of outdoor workers has been challenged as never before by record lengthy periods of record-setting heat and humidity in many parts of the US. Even metropolitan Phoenix, where triple-digit temperatures literally and figurately come with the territory, experienced 31 consecutive days of highs above 100 degrees. (I could swear we endured similar stretches of blast furnace-like conditions during my youth, but climatological data for the time says otherwise.)
Now it’s easy to assume that the addition a few degrees on an already extremely hot day might make little difference to those used to working in such conditions. But as this summer’s heat wave has gone on, so too has the frequency of reports about construction workers being treated for heat exhaustion. Several heat-related deaths have also been recorded, though the total number won’t be known for several months.
Fortunately, there are also many reports of contractors being proactive about keeping their workers safe and productive under the most extreme conditions. The foundation of these strategies—gradual acclimation to hot weather work, water and shade breaks, and emergency response plans—is being augmented by measures such as adapting dust suppression sprays as daytime oases, rearranging shifts and heavy work to avoid the hottest times of the day, and even handing out juices and freeze pops (though without the jingle of the roaming ice cream truck).
These measures defy “tough it out” mindset of years past, but we’ve learned a lot more about long-term effects of prolonged heat exposure. And at a time when skilled labor is in such short supply, few workers will want to be part of an organization that doesn’t go the extra mile to keep them safe during weather extremes.
Hopefully, the arrival of this issue of PDa brings with it moderate temperatures and an end to summer’s extremes--at least that’s what the calendar says is supposed to happen. But Mother Nature has shown a recent tendency to not only ignore calendar conventions, but also rewrite weather records on a more frequent, sometimes daily basis. This is a good time for contractors to reflect on the success of their heat safety practices, and look at ways they can be improved.
After all, the summer of 2024 is just a few months away.
Jim Parsons, Senior Editor