Summer 2022 is shaping up to be long and hot — and with heat waves sweeping not just the United States, but the entire world, the construction industry is having to react and adapt to keep workers safe and projects moving.
“Construction workers as a whole are at risk of heat-related illness,” said Gavin West, director of nanomaterials research at The Center for Construction Research and Training. “People are becoming more aware of it.”
Heat waves and their impact on peoples’ well-being have major impacts on industries like construction. A recent study from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that this will likely get worse in the future, saying that “Climate change-related heat stress will reduce outdoor physical work capacity on a global scale.”
Taking cues from world organizations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been developing new standards for construction in the heat following an especially hot year in 2021 — a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away as the effects of climate change become more and more noticeable every year.
“As we continue to see temperatures rise and records broken, our changing climate affects millions of America’s workers who are exposed to tough and potentially dangerous heat,” said US Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Though these standards haven’t been finalized yet, the ideas behind them are right at the center of the construction industry’s reactions during the rising heat of the summer around the nation.
“Heat can be an issue for construction, primarily those who are doing outdoor work: the civil work on highways and transportation,” said Kevin Cannon, senior director of safety and health services at Associated General Contractors of America. “But it also presents a problem for vertical construction and even some remodeling build-outs and renovations.”
Some construction workers are seeing even more impact than others, too — impacts so severe that they simply can’t work for certain parts of the day.
Evansville, Indiana roofing contractor Jeff Head made it clear just how difficult it is for him and his workers to complete a job in this level of heat, saying that “When it gets two or three o’clock in the middle of the day, you cannot be up [on a roof]. I’ve had guys that have tried that and I’ve had one that had a heat stroke before and couldn’t make it down on the ladder because they got so hot.”
“Just because the heat is rising does not mean that people are able to stop working outdoors,” said Brenda Jacklitsch, a health scientist for the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “And as temperatures increase, it is expected there will be more heat-related injuries and illnesses and deaths.”
“[Many times] we have taken a thermometer, a laser thermometer, and we have put it on those shingles, and they will get anywhere from 150 to 160 degrees easy because that asphalt gets hot, and it can melt,” Head added. “It gets so hot it can blister your hands.”
Some contractors have had to significantly alter their hours just to get jobs done in the heat. “Typically, we don’t come in [until] about 8:30 (A.M.),” said Springfield, Missouri contractor Robin Haller. “But, sometimes we have to come in at 6:30 (A.M.) just so we can get a couple of extra hours in.”
Many workers don’t have a lot of ways to deal with the heat, either — only the most basic methods of beating the heat. “Take a lot of breaks and work slow and drink a lot of water,” said Olive Branch, Mississippi carpenter Shane Denman. “That’s about all I can tell you.”
As workers attempt to make up for time and possible delays caused by the heat, the question of “abnormal” heat waves qualifying as excusable weather delays is still very much up in the air. Jocelyn L. Knoll and Shannon L. Bjorklund examined this in their study “Force majeure and Climate Change: What is the new normal?” all the way back in 2014.
“As weather patterns change with climate change, it will be even more difficult to separate
normal and ‘abnormal’ weather,” the study said. “Even if courts use the standard deviation of a weather variable to determine ‘unusually severe’ weather…they must still rely on historical data which may not be an accurate predictor.”
“That said, using historical data will typically benefit the contractor because weather events that were unusual in the past are becoming more common,” the study said.
These situations are already having a direct impact on construction in the country, as individual areas affected by heat are taking action and making changes to their construction standards on smaller scales. In June 2022, the Chicago City Council introduced changes to the city’s standards on cooling systems after record-breaking heat resulted in the deaths of multiple residents.
“…I think this is top of mind for us this week since we’ll hit a couple of very, very warm days,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “Our construction codes must allow for flexibility in cooling and heating systems to protect the residents who live and work [in affected buildings].”
Even in situations where workers can theoretically work without encumbrances, issues that are already facing the construction industry outside of the heat waves are only serving to exacerbate them.
A recent Reuters report noted that supply chain constraints, which continue to drag down the construction industry, are delaying new construction projects in the renewable energy sector, which in turn is jeopardizing existing energy infrastructure — projects that face an uphill battle to be properly maintained in the midst of extreme weather.
In the meantime, contractors are likely to keep working as best they can until conditions improve.
“You just do it like everybody else does it. Drinking water. Doing what we can. Take a break once and a while,” said Appleton, Wisconsin worker Brock Verstegen. “It’s never fun.”