Contractors should emphasize heat stress prevention

By Tanner Wood, Daniels General Contractors

Over the past several years, OSHA has been working closely with the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health to identify the hazards of occupational heat exposure. Although many different industries face this issue, construction continues to be the highest impacted industry. While only 6% of the U.S. workforce is employed in a construction-related position, 36% of heat-related deaths are found to be in the construction industry. As a result of their findings, OSHA has allocated resources to increase awareness for heat stress in the construction industry. The impact of these efforts require an understanding of how heat stress affects each individual.

What is Heat Stress?

Heat Stress is the body’s reaction to the following:

  • Environmental factors (temperature, humidity, air flow),
  • The body’s acclimatization to the environment,
  • Age and health of the employee,
  • Metabolic heat from physical exertion, and
  • Clothing and PPE (long sleeves, pants, respirators, fire resistant clothing)

The combination of these factors force the body to store heat at a faster rate than the body can regulate it, which results in heat stress. Heat stress can consist of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or any progression of these three. The most dangerous symptom for any variation of heat stress is disorientation. Disorientation can be extremely difficult for one to recognize in themselves once it has onset – which makes it imperative for each employee to keep an eye on their coworkers.

What are the Symptoms and Treatments?

For Heat Cramps, symptoms may include: muscle pain, tightness, heavy sweating, thirst, and fatigue. If an employee notices these symptoms, move them to a cool area and out of direct sunlight. Gently massage and stretch the cramping muscles. Drink cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes.

For Heat Exhaustion, symptoms can include: dizziness, faster heart rate, pale skin, heavy sweating, weakness, elevated body temperature, thirst, nausea, and irritability. If these symptoms are being experienced, move the employee to a cool area and out of direct sunlight. Loosen clothing and apply a cool, wet towel to the face, neck, and chest. Take small sips of room temperature water. Do not drink quickly and do not drink ice cold water; doing so can send the body into shock.

For Heat Stroke, symptoms could include: confusion, slurred speech, loss of consciousness, hot and dry skin, very high body temperature, rapid breathing, and weak pulse. If an employee is experiencing these symptoms, 911 needs to be called immediately. In the meantime, loosen clothing and apply a cool, wet towel to the face, neck, and chest. Apply ice to the armpits, wrists, and groin. The quicker the employee can receive cold water immersion, the less risk of death and organ damage.

Heat stress can quickly become fatal if the symptoms are ignored. OSHA’s new National Emphasis Program outlines the importance of training employees and providing adequate resources to prevent occupational heat stress.

What is the National Emphasis Program?

The National Emphasis Program is designed to protect employees in high-hazard industries from both indoor and outdoor heat-related hazards. The program went into effect on April 8th, 2022 and will stay in effect for 3 years (unless canceled or extended). The National Emphasis Program has an enforcement component to target workplaces where a heat stress hazard is prevalent.

OSHA has developed Heat Priority Days when the heat index is expected to be 80°F or higher. During OSHA’s inspections on a Heat Priority Day, they will integrate a deeper investigation into the company’s heat-related prevention programs.

Furthermore, on any day that the National Weather Service (NWS) has announced a heat advisory or warning, OSHA has the right to conduct a Targeted Inspection on high-hazard sites or facilities. With these new approaches, OSHA will have higher expectations for employers when it comes to protecting employees.

The questions OSHA will be asking on these heat-related inspections include:

  • Is there a written Heat Stress Prevention Program?
  • How does the employer monitor ambient temperature(s) and levels of work exertion?
  • Is there access to water, rest, shade, and breaks?
  • Does the employer provide time for acclimatization of new and returning workers?
  • Is there a “buddy system” in place on hot days?
  • Are there administrative controls being used to limit heat exposures?
  • Does the employer provide training on heat illness signs, how to report symptoms, first aid treatment, how to contact emergency personnel, prevention, and importance of hydration?

What should Employers do?

The prevention steps that OSHA is expecting an employer to take corresponds directly to the questions they would ask during an inspection. If these programs, policies, and trainings are already in place; continued review and implementation is advised. If not, many minor adjustments can be made to reduce the likelihood of both a heat-related incident and a targeted inspection.

The construction industry will continue to see OSHA’s efforts to reduce and eliminate occupational health hazards. It is in everyone’s best interest to be proactive rather than reactive. There are many resources available to properly educate everyone on the heat-related hazards construction companies face on a daily basis. Consult a safety professional for any additional resources, training, and prevention advice that may be needed.


Tanner Wood is the Safety Manager at Daniels General Contractors and serves on the ABC of Wisconsin Safety Committee.

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