By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2018
Harvey, Irma, and Maria so damaged parts of the United States that many affected regions remain in a period of recovery. The summer of 2017 demonstrated the importance of preparation—and some of the limits of the best preparation.
Hurricanes count as only one concern for contractors, distributors, and manufacturers when they put an intense focus on summer safety. Maintaining a safe work environment in the warmest months of the year begins with a nod to reality. Contractors must work in the heat. They should be well-versed in how to work safely in the heat. That demands frequent reminders.
“Hydration is covered daily in the hot months of the year during our staff meetings,” says Doug Rucker, the owner of Clean and Green Solutions in Porter, TX. “We stress heavily the importance of hydrating early in the day, even prior to arriving on the first jobsite. We encourage employees to drink as much water as possible, even encouraging them to drink it on the way to their first job.”
The safety reminders about hydration include what to drink (water) and what not to drink—and why, explains Rucker. “Staying away from dehydrating fluids like coffee, tea, and sodas is part of the advice. We also talk about laying off the alcoholic beverages in extreme the night before.”
There’s something about treacherous travel conditions, such as ice- and snow-covered roads in winter, which pushes us to be more alert. Part of it has to do with the adrenaline that flows in conditions perceived as dangerous.
Conversely, on the perfect summer days when there’s a light breeze, sunshine, and a pleasant temperature—the weather is genuinely fine—do drivers become complacent? “I would hope not,” says Rucker. “We always encourage safe driving and avoiding distraction from things like cell phones or even music from the truck radio,” says Rucker. “Keep your focus on the road and those around you, don’t cut in and out of traffic, and obey all speed limit and warning signs.”
Employees who work outdoors must understand the difference between warm weather and a dangerously hot day. High heat not only poses a risk in itself, but it is generally tied to diminished air quality.
“There is a big difference in working in 75-degree weather and 95-degree weather,” says Rucker. “During the hottest months, we encourage our guys to dress comfortably, take extra breaks to prevent overheating or exhaustion, and drink plenty of fluids. We also have to do a good job of scheduling by recognizing the difference between the ‘hard’ and the ‘easy’ jobs.”
Summer safety must also include preparation for fast-changing weather conditions. “We particularly pay attention to the heavy storms and flooding our areas are prone to,” says Rucker. “We always err on the side of caution in assuring our teams can return home safely, even if it requires a job to be left unfinished. You must always be aware of sudden and quickly changing weather patterns and be able to adjust as needed to protect your workers, equipment, and the public.”
Shade, rest, and hydration help keep outdoor workers safe in summer. Exposure to direct sun increases heat index values by 10 to 15 percent. Conditions indoors also change in summer. Even with air conditioning or ventilating fans, employees could be vulnerable to heat illness on the warmest days, especially when heat is coupled with high humidity.
Reducing indoor humidity and blocking (shades) or shielding (reflective panels) radiant heat minimizes risk to employees. Take care when using fans in very warm conditions. Fans that increase air speeds above 300 feet per minute may have a
warming effect, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
OSHA (OSHA.gov) provides fact sheets and tools for training employees on how to avoid heat illness. It also offers tools for identifying hazards. Among the tools is a smartphone app that enables anyone at a jobsite to get an accurate reading for the real-time heat index as it is being experienced. The app was developed jointly by the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and OSHA. It is free.
Summer either directly brings or exacerbates a number of health risks besides heat. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) is greater in summer. More biological hazards are encountered in summer. Poisonous plants are leafed out (roots are always a danger). Venomous insects abound. Snakes are active. Vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease from tick bites, are easily transmitted.
The CDC also cites increases in noise levels in summer as a health risk to those who work outdoors. Pesticide applications are another risk for contractors in summer. Although a contractor’s team might enter an area that has been treated to eradicate rodents or wasps immediately after the treatment in any time of year, risk of exposure to volatile chemicals is greater in summer.
Educating employees through mandated safety training is the surest path to working safely. Being able to recognize poisonous plants and the nests of venomous insects makes it possible to avoid them. Wearing light-colored clothing and covering legs and arms can help repel ticks. Sun screen protects skin exposed to UV light. And coordination with site owners prevents contractor teams from following on site too soon after a pesticide or rodenticide application.
Lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon that can occur year-round, but it’s commonly associated with summer thunderstorms. Staying safe when a thunderstorm pops up requires seeking shelter.
The Ready.gov website, a federal site dedicated to disseminating information about how to prepare for disasters (ranging from active shooter and bioterrorism to volcanoes and wildfires), dispels some myths about lightning. For one, rubber tires and rubber-soled shoes afford no protection. A hard-top car offers some protection because of the steel frame, not because of the tires.
The best place to be in a lightning storm is inside a building. Try to get there by anticipating the storm. With modern weather apps, tracking the approach of life-threatening storms is not too difficult.
Alerts to severe storms and awareness about seeking shelter have had a great effect in reducing deaths from lightning strikes across the last three decades. On average, 51 people die from lightning strikes each year in the United States, according to Ready.gov. Hundreds more are injured.
By the time summer officially arrives each year on or near June 20, the most active tornado season is generally waning, but tornadoes may be spawned by any severe summer storm. Employees should know where to seek shelter inside a building if a tornado warning is issued.
Hurricanes are the severe weather threat most closely associated with summer. Anyone in a region that may be in the path of a hurricane should be prepared. Because often the most probable way to survive a hurricane is to get out of its path, having an evacuation route (and alternate routes) is a must. Sheltering in place requires preparation with water, food, flashlights, AM portable radio, and batteries. It also requires reducing the risk of flying glass with plywood covers or tape.
First aid kits and first aid training save many lives. Contractors, distributors, and manufacturers are increasingly making first aid training part of ongoing education for employees.
Anything can happen. Thinking about summer safety forces us to acknowledge that we are probably not as prepared as we could be for a serious emergency.
OSHA cites the Institute for Business and Home Safety for the worrying statistic that 25 percent of businesses do not open again after a major disaster (natural or man-made). While it is very difficult to bounce back following a total structural loss, some businesses fail after a disaster because they lose all their proprietary information.
With financial data, customer information, product specifications, and so on all obliterated, it’s difficult to pick up and keep going. No business should be without a business continuity plan.
Cloud storage, off-site storage, or both for all data necessary for a company to operate is the plan. Automatic storage is not sufficient, though. According to Preparemybusiness.org, a product of Agility Recovery Solutions, which works with SBA to encourage disaster recovery plans, testing must be done.
The testing should include bringing servers, networks, and all communications involving workflow and supply chain back online, as well as assessing how critical functions provided by utilities (gas, water, electric) will affect restoration. In some communities, businesses close after a disaster not because the businesses were not prepared, but because of events beyond the control of the business, such as utilities that could not restore services quickly enough.
It’s not the ideal solution, but it’s a practical solution. Should the worst happen, and a business suffer a total or significant loss in a disaster, many loan programs are available from the federal government to assist with reconstruction. Ready.gov provides links to the programs.
Summer is the season for growth. Keep employees safe and businesses prepared by growing in innovative ways to do both. And enjoy the season.