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Hot Takes: Roadside Safety Includes Heat Illness Prevention

This article appears in the Summer 2024 print edition of NAPA Quarterly. Subscribe here.
duval asphalt encourages the use of shade umbrellas
Duval Asphalt Director of Environment, Health,
and Safety Coral Todd said Duval has
implemented a green umbrella tailgate
attachment for shading workers developed by
fellow NAPA member Ajax Paving Industries of
By Ty Johnson
Editorial Director

Heat illness prevention is becoming even more of a priority for asphalt pavement contractors across the country due to warmer temperatures and legislation that seeks to keep workers hydrated.

For Duval Asphalt’s Director of Environment, Health, & Safety, Coral Todd, keeping the roadside crews in Florida safe from excessive heat has always been a big part of her job. She created an app for smartphones based on resources provided in the Heat Illness Prevention Plan (HIPP) for the Roadway Construction Industry that calculates how much water is needed for a project based on forecasts and the number of crew members on site, but she notes that the app is proactive, not preventative.

“It’s a job hazard analysis: I have my gallons. I have my water. I have my designated heat illness person who’s going to keep track of my crew members. It tells you some recommendations of what to do,” Todd said. “And that’s all it does.”

She says while heat illness prevention resources, like the HIPP template NAPA developed with the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), are helpful guides for setting standards, there is still a lack of reporting within the industry that has become a drag on advancing those standards.

“The one thing that we don’t do as an industry is good reporting to see that their best practices are actually working to minimize our heat illness related incidents,” she said. “How do we really know our efforts are helping?”

Todd noted how four Duval crew members had heat illness-related incidents last year despite all the best practices the company has implemented. There was no mystery as to how they happened, she recalled, since the crew members admitted that they had not prioritized hydration or shade ahead of the incidents.

coral todd participated in a microsession on resilience
Coral Todd, left, participates in a breakout session during the
NAPA 2023 Midyear Meeting.

“When it came down to it, it was the employees’ personal responsibility of hydration,” Todd said. She said for some veteran crew members, the aversion to water is an extension of the same “tough it out” attitudes that have been prevalent across the industry for decades and changing those minds can be tough without data.

Todd said Duval has worked with fellow NAPA member Ajax Paving Industries of Florida to tackle these heat illness issues, even inventing a green umbrella tailgate attachment for shading workers. She said Ajax President Vince Hafeli was clearly onto something when he suggested days of extreme heat could be treated the same as rainy days when no paving is done.

“Because you technically can pave on a dry, hot day, they do it,” Todd said. “But then that’s where you run into issues.”

Todd said while the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has data on heat-related illnesses in industries like farming and roofing, there is no such data on road construction and paving. She said she encourages accurate, comprehensive reporting that examines the root cause of incidents, but currently OSHA reporting categorizes these heat illness-related incidents as “Other,” along with a litany of other uncategorized incident types.

Despite the data gaps, she said there is an intrinsic value to implementing best practices, which can indirectly lead to modified behaviors.

“Maybe there’s no incidents to record, but it just brings the morale up,” she said. “They say ‘You guys really do care because it is hot.’ You cannot over-communicate because as a country, in American society, we are already dehydrated.”

Across the country in California, legislation has changed the way workers take water breaks.

Colas USA Vice President of Health, Safety & Environmental Vicky Hoyt said she remembers when she began her career 25 years ago and supervisors felt workers needed to hydrate on their own time.

“It was really frowned upon to go get a drink of water,” she said. “You drank before you worked and then you drink at lunch. I was lucky enough to live in areas close to the coast in my early career, so it didn’t kill me, but when I first got out in the field, I was on a job where someone had died from heat illness and that was the first exposure I had to it.”

Hoyt said she remembers the pushback from companies across California on the new regulations on water breaks, but there is now research that shows when workers are hydrated and take short breaks, they can be more productive.

“We need to show people we care when it gets hot. We want them taking short breaks while they drink their water. You see the pavers with umbrellas and in our company, we’re actually looking at ways to put an air conditioning unit on our pavers to cool people down. This is just because we really care and we want to keep them. We don’t want turnover. But it’s also going to help the product: When people are comfortable and they’re happy and they know that their needs are addressed, you get a big bang for your buck.”

Hoyt, who wrote her dissertation on authentic leadership, said the culture shift must come from the top, with leaders making it known that they are looking out for their workers. She also said while there may be data gaps on the prevalence of heat illnesses in road construction, there is ample evidence that workers who feel protected are more productive.

“An authentic leader cares about their people,” she said. “So if you’re a leader that is depriving people of water, then your people are probably sitting there thinking they don’t want to make your vision come to life. They’re just getting through the day. There’s a lot of data on good leadership producing great results.”

Hoyt said that adage has proven to be true even when water breaks are compulsory, thanks to a safety-focused leadership team at Colas.

“People will give back when they’re feeling taken care of,” she said, noting that new regulations on mandatory breaks have not affected production or profits.

But safety leadership cannot come solely from the C-suite, she said, explaining that she views superintendents and middle managers as the real tone-setters for crew members on roadside job sites.

“Each of those frontline leaders has their own safety climate, regardless of what the company thinks the culture is,” Hoyt noted. Crew leaders set the tone and expectation on the job site. Because of their influence and responsibility, “I keep my focus on the frontline leaders.”

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