The world is in the midst of an unseasonable hot spell, and nowhere seems immune. Spain and Japan have been suffering from near 45°C (113°F) temperatures, while even Scotland is up in the mid 30s. As a result, businesses everywhere have to be aware of the risks of working in hot weather - and none more so than tradesmen and the construction industry.
Hot weather doesn’t mean you need to stop working, but you should adjust the way you approach work, and the way you plan for future heat waves. What’s important is that managers and employees are proactive rather than reactive, and come up with a plan of action before the heat impacts on health and productivity.
Conduct a risk assessment
A lot of the time - particularly in countries that aren’t normally this warm - site supervisors fail to include hot weather in their standard risk assessment. When it does occur, the fact that it’s temporary means that the advice is too. Plans are not amended, and personnel are advised simply to cover up and use sunscreen. While this isn’t bad advice, it is an extremely passive approach to a problem that should be stemmed before it happens.
By putting in plans ahead of time, you can work to minimise the risk of exposure to heat and sunlight. It may be possible to adjust hours temporarily or rotate shifts, such that the most demanding work is done in the cooler parts of the day. You may require additional breaks, or some kind of tent, canopy or other shaded retreat on site.
In most jurisdictions, the provision of appropriate PPE is a requirement of the employer, not a personal responsibility. Keeping clothing, water and sunscreen in storage for your employees will help you to address the hot weather as soon as it crops up, and keep everyone safe without compromise. If you or anyone else in a supervisory position is uncertain of your responsibilities, we highly recommend that you take a site safety course.
Proper hydration can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but you’d be surprised how many people ignore what is a vital aspect of their personal health and performance. While we know that severe dehydration has a profound effect on the mind, recent studies suggest that even mild dehydration can lead to a notable decrease in attentiveness and performance. On a building site, failing to hydrate regularly can make you an active risk, decreasing your attention span and increasing the chance of an accident occurring.
Dehydration is not the same as feeling thirsty, and you may be dehydrated without even wanting to drink water. The best remedy to this is simply to drink habitually: keep a cooler somewhere in the shade, or use a fridge if there’s one nearby, and stock it with a couple of large bottles of water. Bring one with you as you work while the other stays cool, and swap them out when you get the chance. On a very hot day, you should be drinking a cup of water every 15-20 minutes; increase this if you’ve also been drinking coffee or tea, which tend to dehydrate you further.
Wear appropriate clothing
The obvious temptation during a heatwave is to strip down to your bare essentials. This isn’t usually acceptable in an office, but building sites can offer a bit more leniency. It’s not unusual to see builders working shirtless and in shorts in the baking sun -- but it should be. Not only does this often mean casting off mandatory PPE, it’s also a risk through exposure to UV rays.
Failing to apply sunscreen regularly as you work can lead to serious sunburn, dramatically increasing the risk of contracting skin cancer. The ideal clothing for hot weather meanwhile should cover as much of your skin as possible, while also being lightweight and breathable. Outdoor clothing stores often sell UV protection shirts, but sports clothing may also be suitable.
While there is no law specifically banning the wearing of shorts on site, their suitability will depend on the nature of your work; if something does happen that was deemed to be affected by your gear, the business could be penalised. Wide brimmed hats, bandanas and sunglasses with proper UV protection - in other words, bought from a trusted retailer - will complete the look, and protect you from the worst of the sun.
Know the signs of heat exhaustion
Heat stroke, sometimes known as sunstroke, is a potentially deadly condition if it is not treated immediately. It is most often preceded by heat exhaustion, though, which is much more common and much more easily treated.
If you experience any symptoms of heat exhaustion, it’s vital that you take time out straight away to recover and protect yourself from further exposure. These include:
Treating heat exhaustion is normally as simple as lying down, keeping cool and drinking plenty of water, which should improve your condition in half an hour or less. Fail to do so, however, and you could develop heat stroke, where the body is unable to cool itself down. This can lead to fits, convulsions, difficulty breathing and ultimately death, and requires immediate medical intervention.
Change the way you work
Nobody wants to admit that the heat is affecting them, particularly in the macho culture that often pervades worksites. But proceeding at your usual pace when the temperatures ramp up isn’t doing yourself or your boss any favours. If you come down ill, you’re ultimately going to miss more time and be less productive than if you’d just chosen to pace yourself.
Slow down to a pace that feels more comfortable in the heat, and don’t push yourself beyond your limits just because you feel like you can, or to keep up with someone else. Look to share the burden of strenuous tasks where you can, rotating out and delegating tasks to people with less strenuous responsibilities.
You might also want to consider little ‘heat hacks’ to keep you cool throughout the day. Wearing a damp shirt to work is one possible solution, as is wearing a wet rag or bandana around your head or under your helmet. Make sure that nothing you do ends up distracting you or getting in your way, but also do what you can to keep yourself feeling comfortable and within your limits.