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Hot, Hotter, Too Hot

July 2021 earned the unenviable distinction as the world’s hottest month ever recorded, according to NOAA’s (National Centers for Environmental Information). July is typically the world’s warmest month of the year, but July 2021 outdid itself as the hottest July and hottest month ever recorded since records began 142 years ago. This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.

Heat—and cold—at extremes present a problem for those who work outdoors. While exterior construction is often postponed during the coldest days—most outside work can’t be done with the added layers of clothing necessary for warmth—even the hottest days rarely force work to be cancelled. The result is a dangerous environment for the worker and a serious safety problem.

According to the National Institutes for Health, quantifying thermal strain during work in a hot or humid environment typically relies on information about the environment, clothing, and workers’ metabolic rate. Although this approach is encouraged, it assumes that workers are physiologically homogenous and have similar levels of fitness, acclimation statuses, behavioral strategies, and other individual characteristics. To account for individual factors to improve safety and performance during work in the heat, wearable physiological status monitoring has been proposed in the occupational setting.

From 1992 through 2017, there were 70,000 serious injuries and 815 deaths caused by exposure to excessive heat, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 492 occupational fatalities attributed to exposure to environmental heat from 2003 to 2016, 179, or 36 percent, were in the construction industry.

Physiological monitoring of vital signs (e.g., heart rate, body temperature) collects the worker’s individual response to exertion and environmental conditions in real‐time and may offer a greater level of protection from heat‐related injury compared to self‐monitoring.

In occupational workers, the utilization of valid and reliable physiological monitoring devices is limited to research where direct measures of physiological responses such as ingestible gastrointestinal temperature capsules and heart rate monitoring are feasible. Although these measures are considered valid and appropriate to quantify thermal strain, the equipment is costly and/or single use disposable (i.e., no chronic measures), limiting feasibility in many occupational settings.

In 2022, the problem is getting attention: President Biden has announced emergency Federal Heat Rules and tasked the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to set new standards. Tech entrepreneurs are innovating ways to track and prevent the dangers of heat on the body and some construction companies are already incorporating tech that tracks worker wellness.

Kenzen has equipped workers in construction with sensors that continuously monitor their physiology to assess core body temperature, sweat rate, and exertion. Biological sex, age, fitness, acclimatization, and other individual factors dictate what each worker needs to stay safe and productive. Kenzen sensors gather tens of thousands of data points per worker per shift. The data helps eliminate guesswork about how to keep workers safely hydrated and makes it possible for individual workers to know the specific amount of water they need to drink to stay safe.

The Kenzen device warns workers, via haptic vibration, when their physiology indicates danger of heat stress. Managers get an alert via an app when a worker needs an intervention to stay safe. A second alert indicates when the worker’s body is ready to resume work. Corporate safety leaders use an analytics dashboard to make enterprise-wide decisions to minimize heat risks, reduce injuries, and improve productivity. They may adjust work schedules or assign tasks to specific individuals. Throughout the process, personal data is protected; only workers can view their health information while others only see what is necessary to keep workers safe.

McCarthy Building Companies, the oldest privately held national construction company in the country, is partnering with Kenzen to pilot its wearable heat monitoring technology on multiple construction projects. The organizations will gain valuable insight into how the technology can minimize the risk of heat illness and protect the broader construction workforce. The system does not reveal personal information or reasons why someone is in a particular heat risk category; it is only used to monitor and manage people according to their individual heat susceptibility.

McCarthy makes education about heat illness and injury prevention a priority during the spring and early summer as temperatures increase. The company shares educational information internally, hosts on-site educational and training sessions, and makes resources available for its workforce in-person and online. On projects in high heat areas, McCarthy provides hydration aids, shade stations, cooling fans and brimmed head protection to reduce heat. It’s also common for the projects to alter schedules, allowing the day’s work to be completed before the hottest portion of the day.

McCarthy has selected several pilot opportunities for the Kenzen system on jobsites in Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. Employees using the system will be shown the protective value it offers and appreciate receiving notifications about their core body temperature, sweat rate, and hydration status—when they should stop and rest, and when it’s safe to return to work.

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