A construction worker wearing a hard hat and reflective vest holds an open water bottle while sitting on a construction jobsite.
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How to prevent heat exhaustion

Bright sun and hot temperatures are typically thought of as ideal summer weather conditions. But for contractors and tradespeople, hot weather poses a threat to worker safety by increasing physical demands and compromising their health. Learn how to prevent heat exhaustion at work and keep your crew safe.

Heat exhaustion prevention at work

Workers in the construction and trade industries are put at risk because of the nature of their work outdoors. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, thousands of workers become ill and dozens die due to extreme heat every year.

Of all of the heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are two of the more serious conditions. Fortunately, you can learn about the threats of heat exhaustion and heat stroke to protect yourself and your crew when the weather gets hot.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Understanding the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion symptoms and spotting the warning signs will give you and your crew the advantage of early detection. Immediate action should be taken in the event of both heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion

When sweating excessively in high heat, the amount of salt, or electrolytes, in the body can become depleted. This is known as heat exhaustion. Although not immediately life-threatening, heat exhaustion can become serious if left untreated. The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, lists the following as symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Headache and nausea

  • Lethargy

  • Extreme thirst

  • Irritability

  • Heavy sweating

  • Fast heart rate

If a worker exhibits symptoms of heat exhaustion, allow them to rest in a cooler area out of direct sunlight. Provide them with plenty of water and cold compresses or cooling towels to help lower their body temperature. Seek medical treatment right away if symptoms persist or worsen, or if the worker has a known medical condition.

Bonus tip: Drinking a sports beverage can help to replenish electrolytes lost from excessive sweating. Stock up on thirst quenchers that can be mixed into water to help revive workers who have symptoms of heat exhaustion.

Heat stroke

This life-threatening condition is considered a serious medical emergency in which the body overheats because it is no longer able to cool itself. According to the CDC, heat stroke can be fatal or lead to permanent disability. Symptoms include:

  • Confusion or slurred speech

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Seizing

  • Flushed skin that is hot to the touch

If a heat stroke is suspected, call 911 as quickly as possible. Then, move the affected worker to a cool, shady area. Remove all outer clothing and apply cooling packs to the body. If the affected worker is conscious, give them cold water to drink while waiting for emergency personnel to arrive.

Bonus tip: Many first aid kits contain cooling packs that activate instantaneously. Always make sure a first aid kit equipped with cooling packs is available on the job.

Know the risks of heat exhaustion at work

Whether indoors or outside, hot temperatures put workers at risk for heat stroke and heat exhaustion. OSHA recommends using the heat index to determine the hazard levels associated with heat-related illnesses.

Because heat index combines air temperature and humidity, it is a better indicator of how hot the weather actually feels. Remember that the higher the heat index, the greater the threat to worker safety.

Heat index risk levels*

Heat indexRisk level
91°F - 103°FModerate
103°F - 115°FHigh

* According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Safety tips for working in hot weather

When the heat index rises, taking a few precautionary steps will help keep you and your crew safe on the job. Follow OSHA best practices for working in hot weather to prevent heat exhaustion, heat stroke and all other heat-related illnesses:

Regular breaks

Make sure workers take regular breaks in cooler areas with plenty of shade.

Chilled water

Provide enough chilled water for each worker to have a drink as needed. OSHA requires employers to provide potable water from:

  • Water fountains

  • Covered containers with single-use drinking cups in a sanitary receptacle

  • Single-use bottles

Bonus tip: If the jobsite is indoors and drinking fountains are installed, make sure to regularly maintain them to provide on-demand chilled water for workers.

Shady areas

Working in direct sunlight can increase the heat index by 15°F, and the sun is at its brightest between 10:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon. If possible, schedule outside work early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

Bonus tip: The risk of sunburns is present when working in direct sunlight any time of day. While sunburn is not considered a heat-related illness, it should be taken seriously. Besides being uncomfortable or even painful, sunburns also increase the long-term risk of skin cancer. Promote the use of sunscreen by having it at the ready on every job.

Protective apparel

Make sure workers are wearing appropriate protective apparel that isn’t too heavy. Tinted safety glasses and hard hats can reduce the amount of exposure to sunlight, in addition to minimizing the risk of other jobsite hazards.

Time to adjust

According to OSHA, nearly three out of four fatalities from heat illness happen during the first week of work. Give new workers or those returning from vacation an acclimation period to working in the heat. The body needs time to adjust to hot temperatures.

Partner with Ferguson to prevent heat exhaustion

When it comes to safety, Ferguson is your source for the products you need to protect yourself and your crew in hot weather or anytime. Find the information you need to make your jobsite as safe as possible in Safety Matters.