US construction company fined after heat illness kills worker

The US Department of Labor imposed a US$16,131 fine on Alabama, US, contractor, SJ&L General Contractor after an employee died from heat illness last summer

A construction worker wipes his brow during a project. A construction worker wipes his brow during a project. Heat-related deaths in the industry are on the rise. (Image: Adobe Stock)

The US Department of Labor has fined the US general contractor SJ&L nearly $17,000 after an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) official said the death of an employee was preventable and the fault of the company.

The heat index neared 107-degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 C) on 28 July, 2023, in Huntsville, Alabama, US, but contracting firm SJ&L still held a regular day of work.

An investigation by OSHA blamed SJ&L for the death of a 33-year-employee who was overcome by heat illness and died in a hospital later that day.

“Had the employer ensured access to shade and rest in this brutal heat, this worker might not have lost their life and would have been able to end their shift safely,” said OSHA area office director Joel Batiz.

According to OSHA, the fatality occurred after on-site work hand-forming concrete curbs.

“Humidity climbed to 85%,” said OSHA, noting that even on-site medical attention prior to hospitalisation could not prevent the loss of life. “The worker was seen by coworkers stumbling, talking incoherently and eventually vomiting before becoming unresponsive. Though employees provided first aid and paramedics transported the worker to the hospital, the worker died only two hours after being admitted.”

OSHA investigators determined that SJ&L exposed this worker and 18 others to hazards of extreme heat. The crew was working outside in direct sun throughout their ten-hour shifts.

According to OSHA, “The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.”

Heat-caused fatalities on the rise

Deaths caused by extreme temperatures are on the rise in the construction industry – OSHA said US fatalities due to extreme temperature exposure increased 18.6% in 2022.

A 2019 study by the US Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) found that construction workers accounted for 36% of all occupational heat-related deaths from 1992 to 2016. Representing just 6% of the country’s overall workforce, construction workers are disproportionately affected.

Cement masons, according to CPWR, were ten-times more likely to die from heat than the average construction worker, while roofers were seven-times more likely.

Globally, the summer of 2023 was the hottest on record and climate experts and scientists expect new highs in the years to come.

Emplyee health and safety

OSHA said, while the heat will get worse, solutions to keeping employees safe are quite simple.

“Regardless of the season – summer or winter – employers must establish rest cycles, train workers in identifying signs and symptoms of weather exposure, ensure workers have time to acclimate to temperatures, and implement and follow safety plans and ensure those plans are monitored,” said the agency.

‘Acclimatisation’ is also referred to in the industry as a ‘ramp-up period’. OSHA recommends a 20% rule, wherein, during high-heat days, employees only work 20% of a regular day and increase by no more than 20% each day until at 100%.

The CPWR confirmed these strategies, calling for managers to improve workplace interventions like acclimatisation, access to water and rest breaks. The group agreed that enhanced monitoring is also vital.

However, as KHL’s Lucy Barnard reported last year, some US states have deregulated health and standards, causing some to express concern that the escalating numbers will continue to rise.

“Texas’s controversial House Bill 2127, which was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in June, effectively nullifies local ordinances passed in Austin in 2010 and in Dallas in 2015, which guarantee outdoor workers a break of at least 10 minutes every four hours to rest and hydrate – and prevents other cities in the state from passing similar rules,” wrote Barnard last summer.

She quoted Ana Gonzalez, deputy director of policy and politics at Texas AFL CIO, a federation of labour unions representing 240,000 members in Texas, who called this type of regulation “inhumane” and “dangerous.”

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