Safe operations in the precast concrete industry encompass a wide variety of factors and situations.
Cranes, heavy equipment and massive products all are part of the equation and must be considered when developing effective safety plans.
But while big, easily visible machinery and stock stand out as potential risk areas, there is another more difficult to discern concern, especially in the summer months.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, thousands of U.S. workers become sick from heat exposure every year.
And here’s the thing. Heat illness is 100 percent preventable.
But when left unchecked, it can be extremely dangerous and even fatal.
Training and acclimation
Heat stress arises in varying forms of severity, ranging from minor cases of heat rash to deadly heat stroke. Across the spectrum, there are several signs to watch for, including:
- Heavy sweating
- Muscle cramps
- High body temperatures
As is the case with any safety-related endeavor, proper training on these warning signs and knowing the appropriate steps to take in response are key to success.
According to John Braun, director of environmental, health and safety at Jensen Precast, training should be in place throughout the year, particularly during warmer months.
“Training someone once a year isn’t ideal,” he said. “We want to make sure we talk about this every day, so we consistently cover what the exposures are, what the temperatures are and what the signs are. Then, it becomes an instinct to respond appropriately when something does happen.”
Braun noted that training is particularly important for new employees. In some cases, these team members may be so focused on proving themselves that attention is drawn away from other crucial areas, including safety.
Tim Weidrick, safety director at Mack Industries, agreed.
“A new hire is typically concentrated on learning the job and picking things up,” he said. “There’s a lot going on, so they might not be paying attention to their body. Meanwhile, they could be sweating a quart of water every hour.”
Braun and Weidrick suggest toolbox talks on the topic several times per week during the hottest months. Repetition builds retention, encouraging employees to think about how their bodies respond to the heat each day during their shifts.
Jensen primarily operates in the West and Southwest. To prepare for working in high temperatures, new Jensen Precast employees undergo a “ramp-up” period, beginning their first week of work on a Wednesday or Thursday to allow time for their bodies to adjust to the weather.
Another effective approach is to ensure that all team members at a plant begin properly hydrating ahead of the warmer season. When the hot weather hits, they’ll already be acclimated to the changes brought about by higher temperatures.The same hydration and acclimatization process some workers went through as high school athletes – developed by the Korey Stringer Institute and the University of Connecticut – are applicable to precast concrete workers.
Supervisor oversight plays a big role in keeping everyone on track, but being able to recognize the signs of heat stress – both in yourself and others – empowers the entire team.
Jensen Precast team members also work in small groups so that potential heat-related issues or other safety concerns are quickly identified and addressed.
Measures for mitigation
Advanced training is critical in protecting workers from heat-related illness, but many steps can be taken once the warm weather arrives.
- Provide shaded areas for employees wherever possible – both to perform outside work and to take breaks.
- Break rooms, lockers rooms and other areas with air conditioning offer additional relief.
- Make sure that team members have ample opportunities to take breaks throughout their shifts.
- Get out of direct sunlight occasionally to avoid prolonged exposure.
Being amply hydrated upon arrival also is key.
“We work to ensure that our employees have access to water or other forms of hydration and electrolytes at all times,” Braun said. “Drinking throughout the day is crucial, because when you’re thirsty, you’re already one step behind.”
Weidrick said that supervisors at Mack Industries drive around the plants in pickup trucks loaded with coolers containing Gatorade and ice. At their Astatula, Fla., plant, the company takes things one step further.
“Out there, we’ve got huge commercial ice makers that run around the clock,” he said. “The team can fill water jugs, coolers and whatever else they need. We go through hundreds of pounds of ice every day.”
Adjust work schedules to help mitigate the effects of working in the heat. Start earlier in the morning or work later into the evening when the sun is down, avoiding active hours during the day’s hottest times, typically in the afternoon.
Humidity also can generate problems, both due to workers and products. Having ample air flow throughout facilities reduces this issue. Weidrick said that Mack Industries uses 4-foot cattle fans and other air-moving equipment at all their locations.
Combating other extreme weather conditions
In addition to high heat, many precast plants are exposed to a variety of other extreme weather events based on their location. Tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and severe thunderstorms with lightning strikes all generate life-threatening situations.
Developing a plan for addressing each of these weather events is key, including how to respond and where to report to for shelter. The approach should be communicated to new team members during orientation, referenced at least once annually and discussed in greater length during peak seasons.
“We have protocols and programming for all different weather conditions,” Braun said. “The protocols and standard operating procedures we have in place are directed at our employees, but we also want that information to trickle down to families and friends. If your family is not in a safe place, your mind is not going to be on making precast.”
By extending efforts beyond the plant and into employees’ homes, Jensen Precast sends a message of care to all team members and helps to ensure that their minds can stay focused on remaining safe and productive at work.
At Mack Industries’ Florida plant, lightning is a common concern. Severe storms can contain frequent cloud-to-ground lightning, creating dangerous situations.
“You have guys working on outside crane pads with gantry cranes, overhead cranes and things like that,” Weidrick said. “If we hear a close clap of thunder or see lightning in the vicinity, we pull our team inside until we’ve had 30 minutes without it.”
This is the same rule any parent knows from coaching or watching their kids play outdoor youth sports.
Weidrick added that while floor-level supervisors typically make the decision to halt operations due to lightning, employees are encouraged to speak up if they hear or see something that causes them to feel unsafe.
This is also the case at Jensen Precast, where Braun said employees are encouraged to look out for one another and bring any concerns they may have about safety to him or another member of the safety team to be addressed.
The best possible environment
Ultimately, while heat-related illness and extreme weather events can present significant dangers in the precast industry, arming team members with the knowledge needed to counteract issues, the tools needed to mitigate potential effects and appropriate protective measures go a long way toward preventing serious incidents.
Ensuring that team members feel comfortable talking to supervisors and members of the safety team about these topics is paramount.
“Employees want to do a good job and are very proud of the work they perform,” Braun said. “It’s up to management to ensure we are providing the right tools for our employees and that they’re working in the best possible environment. Take care of your employees – if you do that, safety, production and quality will all be taken care of as well.”
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.