Cool heads prevail at hot job sites
Construction workers know dangers of exposure to the summer heat
‘‘You don’t push them — you can’t push them,” he said.
Augustyniak was enjoying the low humidity and the cool breeze last Thursday as he looked out over Route 29 from the recently completed Briggs Chaney Road overpass.
But after three years of hard work on this $30 million state highway project and 23 years of experience in the construction business, Augustyniak knows from personal experience that the summer weather is not always so accommodating.
‘‘You work slower when it’s hot,” the tanned engineer said. ‘‘It’s just a natural thing.”
According to Steve Bisson, statistical administrator for the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Agency, there were 2,880 heat-related illnesses and injuries nationally in 2005 that caused employees to miss at least one day of work.
‘‘It’s not even 1 percent of the total number of workplace illnesses and injuries in the United States [in 2005],” Bisson said, adding that 500 of those cases were due to heat fatigue and 320 to heat stroke. ‘‘We don’t want to brush it off, but it’s not an incredibly significant number.”
Bisson also said that 570 of these heat-related illnesses and injuries occurred in construction.
‘‘If you were going to look at this from an industry standpoint, most occur in the goods-producing industry as opposed to service-producing — which makes sense — and that includes construction and manufacture,” he said.
Dr. Drew White, director of emergency medicine at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, said, in his experience, construction workers generally understand the dangers of the heat and, as a result, are careful on the job.
‘‘When a lot of these construction workers are brought in [to the emergency room], the supervisors are very aware of what’s going on and they’ve often initiated treatment,” he said, adding that the number of such visits goes up during the hot months of the summer. ‘‘They’ve taken them out of the heat and used whatever methods they have available to cool them.”
Augustyniak, who is employed by the State Highway Administration, said he makes sure all the foremen always have water available, that the workers rest in the shade or in the Briggs Chaney site office, and that he allows the crew to come in and leave early on the hottest days.
Mike Atkinson, the electrical contractor on Route 29⁄Briggs Chaney construction site, said more-experienced employees keep an eye on the novice workers who are less accustomed to the heat.
‘‘I walk them over to the truck and put them in the air conditioning,” said Atkinson, who added that after 17 years in the business, his body is prepared when the summer arrives. ‘‘The bosses don’t like it because of fuel costs, but you gotta do it.”
White said that there is some truth to the anecdote about construction workers becoming acclimated to the heat.
‘‘You will see three main differences in their bodies,” he said. ‘‘They will start sweating sooner than you or I would, they sweat more, and their sweat has a different composition — they lose fewer electrolytes.”
Augustyniak said the hottest conditions occur during paving because the temperature of the liquid pavement reaches 300 degrees.
‘‘July and August is the worst, and that’s when the asphalt goes down,” he said. ‘‘Otherwise it cools down too fast and the asphalt breaks up.”
Mahlon Simmons, the contractor on the site, said the safety helmets, vests and the fact that the workers are required to wear pants on the job all contribute to uncomfortable working conditions.
Simmons, like Atkinson, said he has adjusted to such temperatures, but nonetheless would prefer to work in the cold.
‘‘You can always put on more clothes, but you can only take off so much,” he said. ‘‘My wife and kids are at the beach and that’s the last place I want to be. The Alaskan cruise — that’s more my style.”