The Heat is On
By Brett Martin
When 10 outdoor workers died within 23 days last summer in California during record-breaking heat, emergency heat illness regulations quickly followed. The California Department of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) unanimously adopted the new regulations on Aug. 12, 2005, making it the first state to enact heat safety standards.
Although the emergency heat illness regulations will expire this August, permanent regulations are expected to be passed in June. Also, these regulations are currently limited to the state of California, but that could easily change as well.
"My counterparts in other states are watching this with concern. It's possible that other states will adopt regulations," said Julie Trost, executive director for the California Conference of Mason Contractor Associations Inc. (CCMCA) in Fair Oaks, Calif. "Are other states concerned? Yes, they are."
Burden on Contractors
The California regulatory standards have four key provisions: one quart of water per employee each hour; shaded areas for employees in heat distress or needing a break to prevent heat illness; heat illness training for employees and supervisors; and Standard Board review of the feasibility of providing shade for all rest periods.
At a meeting in November, Cal/OSHA considered expanding the regulations to require employers to provide shade for all breaks and lunch, and mandatory rest periods of 10 to 15 minutes every hour under certain heat conditions.
"There's really no need for them," Trost said of the regulations. "Our members are doing at least what's required. In most cases, they're going above and beyond what's required."
Trost and others testified at Cal/OSHA hearings that the regulations were too vague, broad, costly and place all responsibility on the employers.
"It takes all the responsibility off the employee and places it on the employer," she said. "Our position is there has got to be some personal responsibility."
Countering those concerns were labor and employee groups calling for mandatory breaks and cooled structures for shade. The hearings became so contentious that a labor representative called a contractor a murderer.
"It's been a very heated issue," Trost said. "Labor groups would love to force mandatory breaks. They believe that employees in certain professions face peer pressure and people will think you're a 'wuss' if you take a break."
Mason contractors take exception to that notion, saying they ensure their employees are cared for. "I spend time and money training my employees. Do I want them to get heat stroke? No. It's too costly. I'm going to do everything in my power to keep them safe," said Penny Zambrano, president of Cornerstone Masonry in Sun Valley, Calif. "When we see someone getting red in the face, we help them. All we can do is reinforce that this is what we're all about. We want to take care of our employees."
She thinks Cal/OSHA overreacted. "It's frustrating. The bottom line is California is the first to jump the gun," she said. "So many times we find the government has a knee-jerk reaction."
Kevin MacDonald, president of Townsend & Schmidt Masonry in Sacramento, Calif., said the regulations place a burden on contractors, especially the proposal to require tents or canopies for shade.
"It's getting to the point of being ridiculous. I don't think we need to bring our own shade. We build our own shade," MacDonald said. "The regulations will not stop. Every year, there's something else being added that makes things tougher."
Mason Contractors Oppose Landmark Decision
The California standards purposely avoided giving a precise temperature that would serve as a trigger for the regulations to take effect.
"The debate will be how broad these regulations will become," Trost said. "My preference is to leave it open to the contractor's discretion. My fear is that it also leaves it open to the discretion of the inspector. We need guidelines. That's what I'd prefer rather than a hard line trigger."
Because the regulations went into effect at the end of last summer, their effect remains to be seen. Still, masons are bracing for a bottom-line impact.
"It's going to cost us money, but I don't think the employees will see a difference at all," Zambrano said. Her employees won't notice a difference because she's already doing more than what's required. "It's not something we just created. We've been doing this for years."
MacDonald agreed that mason contractors will face additional costs. "Now the job prices are going to go up. It creates a hardship on everything and everyone," he said. "Every year, a new stipulation comes out that costs employers more money. They're creating their own problems."
Since California often leads the nation in legislation and regulations, the heat illness standards could set a precedent for others. "It was a landmark decision when California did this because they were the first state to do it," Trost said.
Contractors in other states may not be worried yet, but they're definitely paying attention.
"What happens in California usually hits Arizona a few years later," said Kimberly Kahl, executive director for the Arizona Masonry Contractors Association (AMCA) in Phoenix. "We're keeping an eye out. Do we expect it to hit us? Yes. It wouldn't be unexpected if our legislature started looking at it. ... I fully expect to see it within the next couple of years."
But like their California counterparts, mason contractors in other states are already taking steps to protect their workers. Some, like Brothers Masonry in Phoenix, bid summer jobs at a lower production rate, knowing that employees can't work as fast and need more breaks.
"The reality is you can't lay as many blocks in the summer as you can in the fall, winter and spring," said company Vice President Greg Jonovich. "We let the general contractor know, in no uncertain terms, that we don't get the same production. If you're responsible for job contracting, you have to know it's going to happen and prepare for it."
Protecting Your Most Valuable Assets
Heat can contribute to other injuries, such as tripping or falling off scaffolding, said Steve Horn, owner of SummitStone Corporation in White Stone, Va., which makes cooling collars and vests. He said workers suffering from dehydration or heat illness shuffle their feet, making them vulnerable to tripping, and they react slower, making it harder to catch themselves.
"There are a lot more heat-induced deaths than people realize," Horn said. "A lot of times deaths are not listed as heat related. They're listed as heart attacks or something else."
Workers are mason contractors' most important assets, so it only makes good business sense to ensure they're cared for and safe.
"Manpower is a problem. We can't afford to have anyone go down. We don't want to see anyone go down. We police everyone when the temperature starts getting above 95," MacDonald said.
As far as Trost knows, none of CCMCA's members have had employees suffer a heat-related injury. "Our members know that employees are the most valuable asset of the company. If you don't have healthy people working, you don't work," she said. "And you certainly don't want workers' comp claims."
A competitive marketplace also ensures mason contractors treat their workers right, Cornerstone Masonry's Zambrano said.
"In this market, if they're not being treated properly, they can go somewhere where they will be," she said. "If you're fearful that your employer is not going to take care of you, then go somewhere else. It's just too costly in the end if you don't take care of your employees."
Mason contractors have a variety of ways for dealing with the heat. Brain Grant, president of Grant Contracting in Fenton, Mo., makes sure any worker who feels the least bit dizzy gets immediately off the scaffolding. He holds weekly safety meetings and, when the temperatures soar those turn into daily meetings.
"Certain things, like a couple of extra breaks a day, are standard," Grant said.
When temperatures climb into the 90s, Townsend & Schmidt Masonry's forepersons pick up 10 gallons of water and ice each morning, instead of the usual five gallons, MacDonald said. The water is readily on-hand, including on the scaffolding. When the mercury climbs into the triple digits, the workdays start at 5:30 a.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. and end at 1:30 pm, before the sun is extreme.
Clothing is also an issue. "We make sure there's plenty of water available and the workers are dressing in the proper attire," Jonovich said. "We like them to work with long sleeves for protection against the sun and against the heat."
Avoiding Heat Illness
Measures to avoid heat illness include:
- Providing plenty of water and salt tablets
- Starting and ending the work day earlier
- Training employees to identify signs of heat illness
- Talking to each worker hourly to ensure they're not suffering a heat illness
- Wearing caps, sleeved shirts, UV absorbent sunglasses and sunscreen
- Allowing more breaks
- Working in the shade whenever possible
- Wearing cooling collars or vests
- Avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol
- Making sure prescribed medications allow for prolonged exposure to the sun
About the Author
Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.