CHICAGO — As temperatures soar this week with an excessive heat watch starting Thursday, James McHugh Construction Co. has a protocol for teaching workers how to handle and prevent heat-related injuries.
“The heat has a cumulative effect on everyone. It wears workers out. So we talk to every worker on how to identify those who are fatigued, and we rotate those workers into less labor intensive jobs,” said Scott Mladic, safety director for McHugh, which has been working on Vista Tower, a glass-and-concrete project that will become the third-tallest building in Chicago.
While McHugh has its own policies, the Occupation Safety and Health Administration has recommendations for managing heat stress in the workplace, but no set standard for workers in hot environments. But a new bill aims to change that by mandating that companies abide by a federal heat standard designed to protect employees.
Last week, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would require employers to provide workers paid water breaks in cool places, access to water and heat-related training.
“Soaring temperatures already plague Arizona’s workforce, and conditions will only worsen as climate change contributes to more extreme heat conditions. By putting an OSHA standard on the books, we can better protect our family members, friends, and neighbors who work in high-risk environments and limit their exposure to dangerous heat conditions,” Grijalva said in a news release last week.
Only three states — California, Washington and Minnesota — have workplace heat standards in place.
Illinois Department of Labor spokesman Mike Matulis said that to prevent heat illnesses companies need to provide adequate amounts of water and additional breaks if workers are feeling fatigued.
“Hydration and breaks are the biggest things a company can do to avoid injuries,” Matulis said.
Chicago-based McHugh provides workers with plenty of water and Gatorade, Mladic said. He said cooling locations are installed throughout the Vista Tower construction project in order to give workers a respite from the scorching sun.
McHugh isn’t the only company taking measures to ensure workplace safety. Clark Construction, a Bethesda, Md.-based construction firm, has its own set of policies.
“Our superintendents schedule more labor-intensive work for cooler times of the day and monitor workers closely for signs of heat exhaustion. When possible, we provide air-conditioned break spaces,” Dave Trolian, division president in the Chicago office, said in a statement.
Mladic said McHugh ensures safety everyday through what it calls its “take five for safety” program. Before the start of the workday, managers go over tasks and the potential hazards associated with them. The program was implemented to make sure employees know how to respond in case of a heat-related injury.
OSHA’s recommendations for employers and workers to control heat stress include:
— Use tools intended to minimize physical strain.
— Implement a buddy system so workers can keep tabs on each other and look for warning signs.
— Recognize the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and how to treat it.
— For new workers unaccustomed to working in hot conditions, no more than 20% of the work should be performed in the heat on the first day. Increase exposure by an additional 20% each subsequent day.
— Drink 8 ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes if you’re engaged in moderate work activities for less than two hours. Drink sports beverages containing electrolytes if you’re sweating for several hours. Generally, don’t drink more than 6 cups of fluids per hour.