Weather Worries—When Mother Nature Threatens to Strike
Does your firm have protocols in place to deal with weather extremes?
Mark L. Johnson / September 2023
As if completing projects on schedule isn’t already enough to do, a contractor must now deal with meteorology.
This summer saw record-breaking weather extremes in rain, heat and poor air quality, which hit much of North America. And more is coming. In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ranked 2022 the sixth-hottest year on record, one of the 10 warmest since 2010. A 2022 study found that climate change is making weather both more severe and harder to predict, reported The Washington Post. And this summer, a buoy off Florida recorded a brutal sea surface temperature of 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit, something never heard of before, The New York Times says.
Mother Nature may never have been such a threat as she is now. Storms, fueled by the extreme heat, appear to be more intense. The air in many places is laced with more particulate matter. Fortune simply says about the weather: “There’s no relief in sight.”
And yet, AWCI member contractors are, well, unfazed by it all.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” says Matthew Taylor, CHST, SMS, corporate safety and risk director at OCP Contractors in Ohio. “The weather doesn’t really affect us because we’ve been watching the weather for decades.”
To be sure, extreme weather events and other emergencies—pandemics, supply chain disruptions, natural disasters—are serious business. But wall and ceiling contractors have continuity plans and have had them in place for some time, sources contacted for this article say. AWCI members are on top of their game when it comes to the weather. They know how to heed weather warnings, protect equipment, tie down materials and, most importantly, keep employees safe.
“I don’t think weather is something that shocks us anymore,” Taylor says. “You’re constantly paying attention to it, and you’re constantly preparing for it.”
How? Here’s a look at various weather events and how wall and ceiling contractors handle them.
The Extreme Heat
Let’s start with heat, record temperatures being a recent news headline. Average global temperatures have risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s, says The Washington Post, citing sources such as NASA, NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization and more. This year, June was the hottest June on record, and July was the hottest month on record, scientists say as reported in a recent Fortune article.
In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration began a rule-making process related to heat hazards. OSHA announced its National Emphasis Program on heat in April 2022 and, this summer, the agency issued a heat hazard alert. It also stepped up its enforcement in high-risk industries like construction and agriculture.
But wall and ceiling companies already follow OSHA guidelines, sources say. When heat indices rise, AWCI member contractors roll out their hazard prevention protocols. They act to ensure crews stay hydrated, have good ventilation on the job and have shady areas available to cool down.
“We provide water, Gatorade, Power-ade, whatever they prefer,” says Doug Lesley, safety director at F.L. Crane & Sons in Mississippi. “We try to acclimate each crew member, since some may have just worked a week in air conditioning, and now they’re working on a slab on the ground. We want to wean them into that new environment.”
Statistics show, Lesley says, that most heat-related illnesses occur when crews are not properly acclimated to elevated temperatures. A worker screwing steel studs and track on a concrete slab can overheat quickly. So, F.L. Crane trains its crews to seek out liquids and cool-down areas. If a job site has no shade, the company erects tailgate tents. Sometimes, Lesley says, the foremen call for long and frequent breaks. Sometimes they start work early and end early to get the crews out of the worst heat of the day.
“We set the bar high and then, straight across the board at each job location, the foremen check the weather,” Lesley says. “But I’m also checking the weather myself and sending out notices about the need to use caution.”
Individual states sometimes run their own OSHA-approved heat illness prevention programs, so contractors need to check and comply with each state’s regulations. California’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard, for example, requires employers to provide planning, training, water and shade. Shade must be made available to workers when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
These days, however, the critical number is not the temperature reading itself, but the feels-like temperature—the heat index. In Mississippi, when heat and humidity lead to a heat index of 85 to 90 degrees or higher, F.L. Crane stops work for a bit and sends the crews out to get hydrated and cool down, Lesley says.
Poor Air Quality
Wildfire smoke contains harmful chemicals and particles that can irritate the lungs, potentially causing bronchitis, worse cases of asthma and even heart failure.
According to the California Depart-ment of Industrial Relations website, the California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5141.1, requires that when an outdoor workplace faces a current Air Quality Index reading of 151 for airborne particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller—and wildfire smoke is present in the area—employers must take immediate steps to look after their workers.
“We check the AQI daily when we have major wildfires,” says Edward M. Hanley, safety director at The Raymond Group in California. The website AirNow.gov, for example, provides air quality readings locally and regionally that account for both forest fires and sizable grass fires. Forest fires may grab all the headlines, but Hanley says grass fires are dangerous too. They can spread rapidly and degrade the air quality in work areas quickly.
“We follow an AQI management plan, and based on that plan we will provide N95 masks to employees on a voluntary basis,” Hanley says. “If the AQI reaches certain levels, we will send people home.”
The California AQI standard does “a good job helping us identify areas that have unhealthy air quality,” Hanley says.
What about the smoke from Canadian wildfires that blanketed much of the upper Midwest and Northeast this past summer? Were northern and northeastern AWCI member contractors’ crews put in harm’s way?
“Actually, it really didn’t affect us,” Taylor says. “Unless you had respiratory problems, you could have stayed home during that time frame, but most guys came to work. It didn’t faze anybody.”
Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc., in New York, says the poor air quality created by Canadian wildfire smoke was not an issue for his crews either. Ronsco performs mostly interior work.
“We did take extra precautions,” Zaretzky says. “We made sure people were using their N95 masks if and when they were loading or had exposure to the outside.”
“Safety is all about awareness, preparation, planning and pre-task planning,” Zaretzky adds. “You look at these things ahead of time and think things through. You provide the proper PPE, water, electrolytes, more frequent breaks—whatever helps to protect your people.”
Stephen Cain, safety quality risk manager at Precision Walls in North Carolina, says the construction project management software the company uses has built-in weather alerts. Crew leaders see the alerts early and usually, Cain says, they include the weather warnings in their “daily huddles,” Precision Walls’ daily pre-task planning meetings.
Cain says Precision Walls follows NOAA’s weather alert prescriptions.
“When it comes to severe weather with lightning, we follow the 10-mile alert for lightning strikes,” Cain says. He says crews can resume their exterior activities on scaffolding and lifts 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder.
To protect against strong winds, Precision Walls follows the guidance provided by lift and scaffolding manufacturers, who call for caution when workers on elevated platforms face wind speeds of 17 to 20 miles per hour. With sustained gusts of 20 mph and greater, Cain says, Precision Walls’ job site leaders suspend elevated platform activity. Strong winds act on the high center of gravity of elevated platforms, which itself creates a hazard. Materials can become sails. They can be caught by the wind and toss the workers handling them without warning.
So, who makes the call to halt work when wind speeds are high? Cain says the site foreman do. But he and others on his team also check weather apps and help the foremen to assess the impact of the weather on workers.
“You’re always watching the weather,” Taylor says. “We just had storms blow through [Northern Ohio], and it was a matter of tying things down. The foremen made sure that studs, drywall, outside exterior sheathing stayed in place and didn’t fly off their projects.”
Taylor sends out notifications quickly and through all means possible—via email, phone call and text messaging. “We have a communication chain that flows through the regional safety managers and superintendents out to the foremen and to the rest of the field,” Taylor says. “We sometimes just tell the foremen, ‘Hey, buckle up everything. Make sure everything’s put away.’”
Really Strong Storms
Atlantic hurricanes tend to form in the summer and fall. NOAA forecasters with the Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, say the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season predicts a 40% chance of a near-normal season, a 30% chance of an above-normal season and a 30% chance of a below-normal season.
AWCI member contractors along the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard keep an eye on developing tropical storms.
“I have a guy [an F.L. Crane safety compliance officer] who works for me down on the coast,” says Lesley. “He evaluates the hurricanes as they get closer and helps job sites to strap their materials. Sometimes he prepares them for a total shutdown.”
After the storms pass through an area, Lesley says it’s critical to make site evaluations “multiple times” before sending workers back in. A job site must be safe and secure before crews resume work.
Are coastal companies, such as F.L. Crane, taking drastic action more often these days?
“It’s not as common as you think,” Lesley says. “Maybe once a year, maybe twice a year, we double up on our training for these tropical storms. But they involve the same high winds and damaging effects as other storms, so we’re prepared all around anyway.”
Cain says Precision Walls tracks tropical depressions and tropical storms before they become hurricanes. When the weather gets serious, protocols call for strapping down material and moving material away from the edges of buildings.
“We have a strapping method—our warehouse will provide straps for that—and we take pictures before and after so that we can dialogue about any damages to our installed work,” Cain says.
He says jobsite leaders upload the before-and-after photos using the firm’s project management software, which is available to them on mobile devices. Also, Cain says Precision Walls always follows the general contractor’s safety and weather preparatory requirements.
“I remember, back in the day, the general contractors used to say, ‘The devil may care, but we have got to get this thing done.’ Now, general contractors have warning systems—they may blast horns. They get on their walkie-talkies. They send emails and text messages,” Cain says. “It’s a really a combined effort.”
In other words, today’s job sites are always ready for the worst.
“If you’ve got 10 or 15 mile an hour winds, then you’re not supposed to be elevated on lifts,” says Lesley, discussing the latest wind-speed shutdown guidance from scissor lift and boom lift manufacturers. “We’ve adjusted to those figures.”
Anything over 20 to 25 miles an hour brings company-owned or leased cranes to a halt, Lesley says. Wind speeds higher than 45 to 50 mph will trigger job site evacuations, he says.
Taking Care of People
Taylor says planning for the weather has been in place “ever since I can remember in construction.”
The extreme weather reports noted of late have done little to adjust company protocols, Taylor and other sources say. Current protocols are solid. They already keep people safe.
“Even before OSHA came up with a heat stress program, we provided different cooling rags for the guys, or water or Gatorades,” Taylor says. “It’s about taking care of your people. We don’t want our people out in these extreme weather conditions.”
Raymond’s Hanley says job site weather management is a collaborative effort.
“The decision-making on what actions to take in each region involve the general superintendent and the vice president who covers each region,” Hanley says. “We’ll talk about the weather. Then, we communicate with everyone—all PMs, project supers and foremen. Everybody on our communication thread sees the weather predictions and the final execution decided for each region.”
“But they have ownership of whatever measures we put in place,” Hanley says. “Companywide right now, we have constant phone calls going on, and that’s for projected weather events we see coming days or even weeks ahead.”
Mark L. Johnson writes for the walls and ceilings industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.