Business Insider

How to prevent heat exhaustion & heat stroke at work

Frank Hohman, a Ferguson Expert

by Frank Hohman


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 their physical demand and compromising their health.

The Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, report that an average of 702 heat-related deaths occurred each year between 2004 and 2018. Workers in the construction and trade industries are put at risk because of the nature of their work. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, over 2,600 workers suffered heat-related illnesses in 2014 alone. 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.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion symptoms

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 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 Centers for Disease Control, or 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.

  • 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 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.

Know the risks

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 index risk levels
*According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Even when the heat index is at a lower or moderate risk level, it is still possible for workers to suffer from heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In fact, one masonry company was issued an OSHA citation in 2015 after a worker suffered heat exhaustion. Even though the peak heat index was only 91.2 F, the worker still had to be hospitalized. Had the masonry company taken the proper safety precautions, the worker could have been saved from heat exhaustion and the company would not have faced the $5,900 penalty.

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:

  • Allow workers to take regular breaks in cooler areas with plenty of shade.

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

    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.

  • Remember that 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.

  • Make sure workers are wearing appropriate protective apparel that isn’t too heavy.

    Bonus tip: Tinted safety glasses and hardhats can reduce the amount of exposure to sunlight, in addition to minimizing the risk of other jobsite hazards.

  • According to OSHA, nearly 3 out of 4 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.

When it comes to safety, Ferguson is your source for the products you need to protect yourself and your crew. Buy safety products online and find the information you need to make your jobsite as safe as possible in Safety Matters.

Frank Hohman, a Ferguson Expert
Frank Hohman

With almost two decades of experience in the safety product industry, Frank uses his expert knowledge to empower trade professionals to stay safe on the job.