Workers can be at risk of dehydration especially when performing construction work on a hot, humid day. However, it is important to note that even office workers in an air-conditioned space can become dehydrated.
What many workers don’t realize is that water makes up about 60 percent of our body weight. Water is needed by all of the body’s organs to perform vital life functions like breathing, thinking, digesting food, urinating, and maintaining optimal core body temperature. When the body becomes dehydrated, even mild dehydration caused by the loss of 1 or 2 percent can cause thirst, headaches, muscles cramps, and other physical problems. Severe dehydration can result in heat related illness and even death.
The body uses water in a number of ways. Once water is metabolized and used it needs to be replaced. The amount of water a person needs to drink depends on a number of things, including age, gender, work activity level, temperature and humidity of the work environment, and more. It has been estimated that the average person needs to replenish between two quarts to two gallons daily, depending on their activity levels and ambient temperature.
Although the body has mechanisms to warn a person that he/she needs to replenish fluids, many people don’t recognize or pay attention to these signals until it is too late. Many individuals wait until they are thirsty before getting a drink of water, but most people will not become thirsty until they have lost about 2 percent water. Sweating is another mechanism the body uses to alert the individual about the need to take a drink to replace both water and electrolytes. Workers should be advised not to wait until they are thirsty or sweating to rehydrate.
Preventing dehydration in the field is not difficult. All that is needed on most jobs is for the employer to ensure safe drinking water is available and that workers drink enough to stay hydrated. In some situations, such as very hot and/or humid jobsites, the employer may need to make sure extra water coolers or bottled water is readily available onsite or replenished as needed. Additional water breaks may also be needed.
The OSHA Sanitation standard – 1926.51 – requires all employers to ensure that an adequate supply of safe, clean drinking water is available in all places of employment, including construction jobsites. Construction employers are required to provide drinking water from a safe piping system or portable containers, which are capable of being tightly closed, equipped with a faucet, and clearly marked as drinking water. In addition, single service disposable cups, to be used only once, must be available from a sanitary container and a trash receptacle must also be supplied for used cups. Use of a common drinking cup, dipping from the container, and certainly drinking from the faucet is forbidden because of the possibility of spreading disease. In addition, drinking water coolers should never be used as wash stations.
If a water line with safe drinking water is not available, then employers must provide a tightly closed, corrosion resistant water container and dispenser filled from a safe water source. The cooler must have a gravity flow faucet that will dispense water as needed. The top must be kept closed tightly and workers should not be permitted to open the top to dip water or ice from the cooler.
Employers frequently overlook the importance of making sure that the container is cleaned and sanitized daily. This involves washing the container with detergent and rinsing it out with clean water at least three times. The container and the faucet can also be sanitized with a mild chorine solution made up of 2 teaspoons of bleach for every gallon of water. After sanitizing a container, it should be rinsed with clean water.
If you cannot fill the container from a kitchen sink or other safe water faucet, fill it with bottled water. A gallon of water in most stores cost less than $3.00. If you must use a hose to fill the container be sure the hose is specifically designed and used for potable drinking water and don’t leave it laying on the ground where it can be contaminated. Never use a regular garden hose because they can release unhealthy chemicals into the water.
If you add ice to the container, it too must be safe, and workers should not be permitted to touch the ice when placing it in the container. The best way is to buy a bag of ice at the store and dump it in the cooler. Place the cooler in an area where it cannot be contaminated and keep it secured 3 feet off the ground. Make sure the cup dispenser is attached to the container or nearby and don’t forget the trash can. If potable water cannot be provided from a safe clean container, bottled water may be provided by the employer.
Providing enough safe drinking water for employees, regardless of the temperature at the jobsite, is an OSHA requirement and they do issue citations for not complying with these rules. It is also the employers’ responsibility to ensure the containers and cups provided for water are sanitary.
I would suggest that employers take the time to hold a tool box talk or other safety training session to ensure workers know the importance of drinking plenty of water each day, where they can find it onsite, and the rules necessary to keep the water safe for drinking.
NUCA is well known for its support of the Clean Water Act, the least we can do is make sure workers have clean water to drink at every jobsite.
George Kennedy is NUCA’s vice president of safety.