By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2022
Complacency deserves the blame it gets for diminishing safety in the workplace. But it’s not the only factor that increases risk of injury or even fatality.
We take it as a given that employees do not use alcohol or drugs on the job. But could a change in climatic conditions impair the judgement of employees? Yes. Worse, an employee who overheats, for example, might not even realize that his or her judgement is impaired. A focus on safe practices demands a comprehensive view and constant reminders. Five members of our industry share their perspectives on things to keep front and center.
Working with chemicals? Are there added cautions when temperatures exceed the normal parameters of heat (or cold)?
Yes, but never forget they are part of the big safety picture (with all components) that is present 12 months a year. “Of course, following the precautions on the SDS sheet is always necessary to prevent injury,” says Mike Turner, president of Etowah Chemical Sales and Service in Gadsden, AL.
In the heat of summer, follow the basic, well-known strategies to prevent impairment. “When working with high temperatures, staying hydrated is critical to preventing a heat stroke,” says Turner. “Be sure you always have plenty of bottled water available to stay hydrated,” he remarks.
Jorge S. Aguilar, CEO of Empire Highrise USA in Kansas City, MO, also cites the importance of never ignoring the fundamentals that maintain safety. “Summer in my opinion is the most concerning as the temperatures rise earlier in the morning and increase from there.”
With fewer hours available to work without exposure to high heat, awareness of surroundings and consequences of heat exposure must be emphasized. “Heat stroke would be the most concerning, but heat exhaustion, cramps, fatigue, etc. are risks,” says Aguilar.
“Such outcomes will always take the employee’s mind off safe practices as they are working in elements where they would like to work faster,” says Aguilar. Hydration and breaks in summer heat are musts.
“Consider carrying sports drinks/powders along with water with you,” says Aguilar. And be self-aware. “Please keep in mind that if you start feeling dizzy and not like yourself, you may need to take a break in the shade or go inside to a cooler temperature.”
Safe practices begin with a thoughtful approach. “The ‘hurry up to get done’ mentality is one that will get you in trouble and put you in situations where you will be in danger,” says Aguilar.
Instead of hurrying, pause and plan, explains Aguilar. “This is when you need to react, slow down, think through what you are doing, check your surroundings for safety concerns and make sure you are all good before moving forward.”
Michael Draper, the safety director for PWNA and a member of the team at Expert Services, which trains workers in safe practices, endorses the importance of planning. “Proper planning is essential because each jobsite is unique, and every day presents unique circumstances but with planning for hazards a safe workplace can be created.”
Pilots call it “weather,” but we all know what they mean by the turbulent conditions that signal it’s time to pay special attention. “Weather always plays a role in planning a safe work environment,” says Draper.
“Since many contractors in the industry work outside, it becomes even more of a concern when weather is in-hospitable,” explains Draper. “Heat in the summer months can lead to heat exhaustion, and stormy weather can affect work at heights, such as aerial lifts and suspended work.”
It’s not just those working outdoors who must compensate for extremes of weather. Temperature and humidity affect the indoor environment
“The temperature extremes of summer and winter in the Midwest bring their own unique challenges,” says Mike Gruver, general manager at Hydrus Detergents in Estherville, IA. “The heat index is the item we most closely monitor in the production areas near our team members.”
Safety of workers and production must be in balance. “Generating air flow patterns across the facility to improve working conditions while not impacting product quality is one of the key goals,” says Gruver.
Pauses for rest and hydration get a do-it nudge with a bit of enticement. “We have popsicles and ice cream bars in the break room as a way to keep employees hydrated while keeping team morale up during the high temperatures,” explains Gruver.
Training employees is a given. It’s also imperative to understand how to some extent each person is unique in his or her ability to cope with temperature extremes.
“Managing heat exhaustion and fatigue and understanding how different team members manage the heat is a key to creating job rotation schedules and having any additional PPE for their needs,” says Gruver. “We supply cold towels and safety gloves that enhance grip for team members.”
The towels minimize the risk of heat exhaustion, and the special gloves reduce the risk of something slipping out of hands, explains Gruver. The entire strategy for safe practices begins with a comprehensive view of the work environment and leadership.
“Fundamentally, it’s always about leadership defining the safety standards for daily operation and then providing proper PPE for the season of the year,” says Gruver. Looking ahead is part of the leadership.
That includes looking ahead to the next change in weather and being prepared for it. “Be proactive for the upcoming season and have continual conversations that involve safety on a regular basis,” says Gruver.
Train. Test. Train again. (It does not have to be a formal test, but just a short meeting with team members to review the basics and keep attention focused on safety.)
With summer upon us, we reemphasize safe practices for the season. “Ambient temperatures can affect all workers, especially exterior cleaners—soft wash or pressure/power washers,” says Jimmy Welch with American Pressure Inc. in Robbinsdale, MN.
“Train employees to recognize the signs of heat-related illnesses and take action,” says Welch, and be prescriptive.
“Mandate frequent rest periods in a shaded shelter,” explains Welch. “Reduce the physical demands of workers when temperatures and humidity levels are high. “Adjust schedules to avoid outdoor work during the hottest period of the day from 10 a.m.–2 p.m.).”
Then, bolster the basics. “Use relief workers or assign additional workers for physically demanding tasks,” says Welch. “Provide PPE appropriate to the weather conditions, if possible. Provide cool water or other non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages to workers.”
Welch recommends a CDC publication that outlines eight tips for safe work and play in summer (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0517-eight-tips-healthy-summer.html). The publication also includes a stark reminder that heat of summer poses a potentially lethal danger. More than 600 people die in the United States each year from exposure to heat.
Exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV) from the sun, if excessive, can lead to skin damage, cataracts, and cancer. Sunscreen is recommended.
Keep the creatures of summer in mind when working outdoors. Insects—stinging bees and wasps—constitute the most significant risk, and repellents will not keep them away. Contractors should always carefully assess a structure and its environs to be sure there are no wasp nests or protective bees (of flowers and ground nests) in the path of work.
Some residential areas could be frequented by snakes, such as copperheads. Know the poisonous snakes in the geographic area where you are working and how to avoid tripping over them.
In certain parts of the country (e.g., mid-Atlantic), fox populations are very high right now. If a fox, a racoon, or any other animal one does not expect to see in daylight is at a jobsite, assume it is rabid and call animal control. Similarly, always look out for properties that may be harboring rats and preempt risk by having the rodents exterminated before starting work.
The best training in how to cope with the pleasant changes and unpleasant vagaries of the seasons will be insufficient if equipment does not function optimally. The owner of a machine or ancillary should rely on periodic expert evaluation to verify the integrity of equipment.
“When doing exterior cleaning, make sure your equipment is operating correctly,” says Welch. “That means the equipment has had quarterly service by a qualified service center, especially diesel-fired hot water equipment,” he notes.
Working with an experienced, dedicated dealer of pressure washers and ancillaries adds a layer of assurance to safe practices. Welch cites the valuable information a dealer can provide by pointing to the recent recall (because of carbon monoxide hazard) of certain gas-powered and electric-start pressure washers in the consumer market.
Although equipment used by professionals in our industry meets the highest standards, the consumer recall illustrates vividly how many dimensions there are to safe practices. “Don’t use a pressure/power washer or any gasoline-powered engine indoors, or less than 20 feet from any window, door, or vent,” says Welch.
Summing it up, never forget where safe practices begin, and start there: “Make sure all workers are properly trained,” says Welch. “PWNA offers great training courses, including OSHA safety training.”