It’s hard to beat the heat when your job requires you to work outside in the baking sun. Even though you may be far away from an air-conditioned building, there are ways to keep cool while working outdoors.
All Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group field employees partake in a heat illness prevention program. The program intends to protect employees from heat-related illnesses while working job tasks that would pose such a risk and to establish guidelines for working in the heat.
“Hopefully, we are always planning for the worst but taking the proper measures to not get to that level,” said PTTG Vice President of Risk Management Eric Gardner.
As part of our daily Job Safety Analysis (JSA), supervisors hold meetings to go over high heat protocols and review symptoms of heat-related illnesses. Communication is key. Workers are in constant communication with each other throughout the day, often aided by cell phones or handheld devices like walkie-talkies.
Supervisors are tasked with keeping records of which employees are working outdoors and for how long. They must report this data to the project manager. It’s their responsibility to provide at least a quart of cool water per employee per hour and that adequate shade at job sites throughout the workday. It’s also the supervisor’s responsibility that their employees take breaks, continuously check their employees for heat-related illnesses, and know the necessary steps in the event of one of our employees having a medical emergency is to call 911.
Heat illnesses include heat rash, heat cramps, heat syncope, rhabdomyolysis, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Air temperature, relative humidity, and radiant heat from the sun and other sources all contribute to working conditions that create the possibility for heat illnesses.
Heat illnesses can be brought on by not giving your body enough time to adjust to the climate. Acclimatization is when a person temporarily adapts to working in the heat as they become gradually exposed to it. Acclimatization peaks in most people within four to fourteen days of regular work for at least two hours a day in the heat.
It can be difficult to acclimate when there are radical temperature shifts. An Allstate Tower crew working in mid-March 2021 started their day with temperatures in the mid-50s. By the end of the workday, it had soared to 108 degrees. “Can you imagine the acclimation to your system to see 57 degrees in one day?” Gardner asked.
“Temperature is only part of it,” Gardner said. “As the temperature and humidity rise, there is a balance of how long to work or rest as well as what is the right amount of hydration.”
Humidity is “equally as important as it regulates ways in which the body can cool,” Gardner said.
n the summertime in a place like Texas, it will be 95° and 100 percent humidity to start the day. It’s hard to get acclimated to those conditions. This means workers take numerous breaks as they work so they don’t get too hot.
Employees rotate working and resting in the shade and rehydrating when it’s exceptionally hot, humid, or both. More frequent breaks are encouraged when it is hot or humid.
Taking breaks in the shade helps workers cool off. Trees, umbrellas, and canopies can all provide sufficient shade – that is shade that doesn’t cast a shadow in the area of blocked sunlight. Sitting in a vehicle with the air conditioner running is also adequate shade – though not in a car without it since the vehicle’s metal is just a conductor for the sun.
Heat affects everyone differently.
“It is the full crew’s responsibility to look after each other because some people don’t recognize when they have gotten to that point,” said Gardner.
PTTG workers often find themselves on top of tall structures like elevated water tanks or communication towers. If someone starts feeling dizzy or starts blacking out because of the heat, they could fall and injure themselves.
If a worker sees someone else overheating, especially if they are atop a tall structure, they should “be able to assess the degree of heat exhaustion or heat stress,” said Gardner. “We train our crews on how to recognize and deal with that.”
Pittsburg workers are typically pretty good about speaking up and asking to take a break in the shade or to go cool off by a fan.
“The majority of our guys have said, ‘I don’t feel right,’” said PTTG Head of Business Development EWT Chris Johnston. “That’s the key, recognizing when you don’t feel right and speaking up about it and making sure the foreman and the other crew members listen as well instead of hassling or haggling over it.”
Pittsburg employees are required to wear protective clothing and personal protective equipment when working outside. They are encouraged to lighter clothing that will better reflect the sun.
“Data shows that lighter, thinner clothing helps with wicking away sweat,” Gardner said. “There are some stipulations based on materials and tasks.”
Beyond clothing, Fans, tents, and cooling vests help measure and regulate body temperature.
“The tough guy mentality has changed as we have witnessed healthy young athletes succumb to heat-related deaths,” Gardner said.
“It really is looking at yourself as an industrial athlete,” said Gardner. “Preparation before work, during work, and after work to eat properly and hydrate.”
Gardner has had a long career in safety. Before he started working at PTTG, he can recall instances where workers became so overheated they had to be hospitalized and given IV fluids. In one case, a worker ignored company protocol. Instead, he didn’t hydrate after work. He woke up so dehydrated he was admitted to the hospital for observation.
“Staying hydrated for working starts the day before,” said Johnston. “Staying hydrated throughout the day and continuing to drink water throughout the evening.”
PTTG recommends that its employees drink a 3:1 ratio of water, Gatorade, or another liquid full of electrolytes. Employees are responsible for drinking enough liquids before, during, and after work. They are also expected to speak up if the water and shade provided aren’t adequate. Employees are personally accountable for their health – if they feel ill, they should take a break and hydrate. If they see their co-worker showing symptoms of overheating, they should encourage their co-worker to rest and drink replenishing liquids.
“Our foremen do a good job of stopping and getting drinks on the way and planning accordingly, but you also get some people who are big Monster drink fans, or they are a big coffee drinker or just diuretics in general,” said Gardner. “They think they are getting enough fluids, but they don’t realize the negative impact of some of those fluids as well. It’s a combination of everything.”
By being accountable for their health and that of their co-workers, PTTG employees help ensure a safe working environment – something PTTG always strives for.