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‘Adaptation Cost Of Anguish’: How Extreme Heat Is Slowing Down Construction

The construction industry has pushed to adapt to extreme heat, but this summer has shown it can’t avoid the trade-offs of rising temperatures.

Firms have made investments to ensure worker safety and comfort while keeping projects moving during heat waves, but worker reps and experts studying heat impacts say decreased productivity will be a given going forward during an era of increasingly hot summers.

“I don’t have exact dollar amounts or time, but anybody who says this isn’t impacting them I would say is lying,” RSM construction analyst Nick Grandy said.

Increasing extreme heat will weigh on construction productivity going forward, per analysts.

During extreme heat, construction activities involving physical work on average take 36% longer to execute, according to an exclusive analysis for Bisnow by nPlan, a British construction analytics and software firm that draws from a dataset of 750,000 projects from English-speaking countries around the world.

“The question comes down to the human element,” said Jimmy Williams, general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which also covers workers who finish drywall and install glass and floors. 

He said a certain segment of nonunion contractors aren’t following proper guidelines and are leaving workers vulnerable.

As Williams pointed out, heat is one of the three main causes of worker deaths in the U.S., per a study by consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen.

"It used to be people falling off buildings, or placing them in unsafe positions,” Williams said. “You can’t tell me if you’re losing someone due to heat exhaustion you’re not losing productivity.”

As weather continues to get hotter, experts predict it will only add to the drain on productivity in an industry already facing labor shortages, and it will add to the tension felt between hitting deadlines and keeping workers safe. 

This summer, construction crews across the country have faced punishing working conditions during extreme heat waves, with weeks and even months of triple-digit temperatures becoming the norm. Going forward, firms will be forced to add more workers during hours outside of the peak of daytime heat, potentially challenging scheduling and recruitment and disrupting focus, or offer more breaks, adding time and cost to projects. 

“It’s this insidious danger, you can suffer heat stress and heat stroke,” said Candelario Vazquez, health and safety organizer for the Workers Defense Project, a Texas advocacy group supporting construction labor. “A lot of people are recognizing that falls could occur after heat stress. It compounds other types of safety issues.”

Bisnow reached out to 15 different contractors and construction firms across Arizona, Texas and Florida, areas hit hard by extreme heat this past summer. The three who responded directly said they’ve noticed productivity declines. 

“To say the heat this summer has been intense would be an understatement,” Hal Wheatley, senior safety manager at Manhattan Construction Co., which works extensively across the southern half of the nation, told Bisnow. ”The heat we’ve experienced this summer has been physically challenging for our field teams, impacting productivity.” 

Like many construction firms, Wheatley has adjusted work hours, established shade and cooling stations, passed out Popsicles and “spent extra efforts educating our trade partners on the importance of heat-related safety.” 

Grandy has heard of firms pouring ice into concrete to be able to pour it, and he said a firm he works with has a line item in its budgets to account for the additional time off workers take due to this extreme weather. It’s listed as “direct charging indirect,” a reference to the hourly direct cost of workers who aren’t able to be fully utilized due to a day of extreme heat.

“People working on these construction sites, it’s equitable to what you’d be doing as an athlete,” Grandy said. “Especially over an eight-hour shift. It takes a toll on you.”

He said there is an added cost, that while not substantial right now, is likely to increase over time. Estimates of the costs of extreme heat on economic output vary wildly, since measuring productivity is notoriously a tricky process. Academics have tried to arrive at an overall economic cost; a team at Dartmouth estimates wealthy countries tend to lose roughly 1.5% of their overall GDP to the impact of extreme heat.

A recent study found many construction workers exhibited signs of severe, regular dehydration.

For construction, that becomes more pronounced, as extreme heat will not only make it harder to work, but it will damage key infrastructure, requiring more construction spending.

There is strong evidence it will become more severe. As Grandy points out, the temperature only continues to rise, as will the average age of the construction workforce, which rose from 40.5 in 2015 to 42.5 in 2022.

Heavy road pavers and infrastructure workers, who are directly exposed to the elements, will likely bear the brunt of a shifting climate. In recent years, productivity for this group has declined, while it increased for apartment builders, per Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This will be an increasingly busy and vital subsection of the industry; heavy and civil construction added 7,000 and 11,000 jobs, respectively, in the August jobs report, showcasing the ramp-up in hiring from Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill spending, Grandy noted. 

Measuring the long-term impact of this kind of heat on productivity is more tricky than it first appears, said Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He has studied global adaptation to extreme heat and has found that predicting how workers and employers adapt, and trying to assign exact costs, can be challenging. In addition to taking longer breaks and shifting the time of day they work, many will postpone certain jobs or tasks on incredibly hot days. This kind of shift is especially prevalent in construction and outdoor manual work, he said.

These kinds of adaptations may have worked thus far, he said, especially in areas such as Phoenix, where extreme heat has been a norm. But going forward, the impact of heat on productivity will be akin to the health dangers of extreme heat; areas already familiar with these kinds of temperature will face increasingly longer stretches of extreme temperatures, while areas unfamiliar with triple-digit days will find themselves dealing with a relative unknown.

For construction crews, that means areas like the Northwest or Northeast will be increasingly challenged by unfamiliar weather patterns, while those in the South will face longer and longer periods of sweltering weather, mitigating the impact of efforts to shift work or rearrange schedules. 

“There's an adaptation cost of anguish, being paid for basically by people's reduced ability to work,” Jina said.

His research has shown that at 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above, people begin to work less, and once the temperature hits 110 degrees, those in high-risk sectors like construction lose at least one hour of productivity every day.

Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Association of General Contractors of America, said he polled the group’s Phoenix members, and none mentioned any productivity impact from the heat. 

Jose Garza, DPR Construction’s national environment, health and safety leader, said the company invests in forecasting technology, and for the last half-decade it has done deep dives on weather and adjusted its schedules to account for extreme heat. Injuries on the job can cost $8,500 per day in lost productivity, with indirect costs potentially ballooning to five times that figure. He said the firm's investments in worker safety meant that last summer in Austin, during the Texas capital’s record-breaking heat, it managed to finish the summer with zero heat-related injuries. 

This year’s extreme heat suggested there are limits to adaptation.

Arch-Con President Jason Cooper, who leads the Texas-based construction firm’s safety team, said it asks all subcontractors to detail how they are mitigating heat risk via a task hazard analysis, which are audited daily.

“Just like any severe weather event, the extreme heat we have been experiencing has hindered production on our projects but not as much as we anticipated," he said. "Concrete, underground utility and roofing subcontractors who work outdoors have experienced some of the slowdown.”

Vazquez recommends job sites and contractors invest in more training, as well as increased awareness of different heat measurements, like the heat index, and how that can add to stress on the job site.

Workers have told Vazquez that often, they are “worked to the brink,” and given breaks at the last moment. That may follow protocol, but stopping at the edge of exhaustion means the workers are likely already facing early signs of heat stroke. A 2022 study of 16 workers in Texas by Bethany Alcauter found that over two days of data collection, 100% tested positive for severe dehydration, 44% tested positive for blood in their urine — a sign of frequent and prolonged dehydration — and 12% may have experienced rhabdomyolysis, a degradation of muscle tissue made worse by dehydration and lack of electrolytes.

Many workers, especially those who are undocumented, fear reprisal if they raise their voice, Vazquez said.

Worker advocates argue more needs to be done, and more needs to be formalized, at the state and federal level. Four states have regulations to safeguard workers from heat: California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has embarked on a rulemaking process to update regulations around extreme heat and the workplace, but the process, which normally takes many years to complete, won’t come into play for some time. Williams said that general contractors need to seize the moment and set the tone, and set more binding standards, rather than wait for regulations.

“We don’t need government, we need humanity,” he said.

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott recently took the opposite tack — signing a bill into law that banned municipal efforts to mandate water breaks — union leaders and activists are pushing for new rules to protect construction crews and other outdoor, manual laborers. When the Workers Defense Project successfully lobbied for regulations in Austin more than a decade ago, it invited city legislators to take their laptops outside in the summer heat.

On Sept. 7, members of Workers Defense Action Fund, leaders of the Texas AFL-CIO and other worker advocacy groups plan to march in Austin to demand Abbott implement statewide heat safety protections during the next Texas Special Legislative Session. 

It is a “foregone conclusion” that if construction crews do attempt to mitigate the impact of rising heat on their workers, it will come at a cost, Jina said. There is a trade-off between productivity in extreme heat and cost, and that cost will rise along with the temperature.

DPR’s Garza said the company is testing an inflatable, mobile cooling tent, which it may soon begin deploying to job sites to help workers cool off. 

Grandy imagines some construction companies may even adjust their schedules, pushing their busy season out of the punishing summer months and trying to avoid work during times of peak heat. The industry is entering a significant period of adjustment and adaptation. 

“I think it’s going to be hard to get the work done, and hard to get people to join the industry, if they have to spend three months a year working in 120-degree weather,” he said.

CORRECTION, SEPT. 6, 2 P.M. ET: A previous quote from Jimmy Williams incorrectly cited statistics about heat and worker fatalities. The story has been updated to cite an accurate report on the issue.