The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 18, 2019 1:00 am

Staying safe when working in heat

Crews bracing for high temps

DAVE GONG and JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

As temperatures near triple digits this week, those who work outside are particularly susceptible to heat-related danger.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s starting today through Saturday – and maybe Sunday, according to National Weather Service meteorologists.

Heat indices will make the temperature feel like 100 to 111 degrees, said Geoffrey Heidelberger, a meteorologist at the NWS Northern Indiana office in Syracuse.

“When getting ready for outdoor work in very hot and humid days, remember that hats and sunscreen are not just for the old,” said Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner. “By and large, when it is hot outside and you are sweating profusely, your internal temperature is hot. So get out of the heat, drink plenty of fluids and rest.” 

Workers with the Indiana Department of Transportation are trained annually regarding heat and cold exposure, spokeswoman Nichole Hacha-Thomas said. That training covers how to mitigate the danger and what to do if another falls ill on the job.

“Our crews are careful to watch out for one another and are vigilant about staying adequately hydrated,” she said. 

When the heat mounts, INDOT adjusts its activities as necessary, Hacha-Thomas said. Jobs may be suspended for maintenance crews due to heat, or crews can be moved to other activities until heat subsides, she said. 

“On days like we've been having, we will continuously rotate workers in and out of certain positions with exceptional exposure to heat to give them frequent breaks,” Hacha-Thomas said, using construction flaggers as an example. 

City crews also are trained to deal with extreme temperatures, Public Works Department spokesman Frank Suarez said. During the summer, workers can take extra breaks, water is provided at work sites and city vehicles are equipped with air conditioning, he said. 

Companies like Weigand Construction take the heat seriously, corporate safety director Greg Musi said. The first thing the company does is provide employees with information regarding what to do – and what not to do – when working in the heat. Weigand also uses the buddy system, where employees are expected to look out for each other to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Weigand crews will also start work earlier in the day, if necessary.

“If we have an opportunity to start at 6 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., we're going to start a little earlier because we know it's going to be hot,” Musi said. “We also make the extra effort to provide plenty of fluids. That means the coolers full of ice and water are placed closer to workers and we encourage them to push 16 to 20 ounces of fluids into their body every hour.”

Although conditions haven't reached a point where work has had to be suspended, Musi said job-site superintendents use common sense when managing their areas. 

“If a superintendent finds that his crew is whipped and they're not doing well, they have the right to shut the job down for the day,” he said. “It's on an individual basis. We give the autonomy to make that decision.” 

The most important part, Musi said, is awareness and making sure people know what to look for when it comes to heat exhaustion.

“Maybe the guy that it's happening to isn't aware that it's happening,” Musi said. “That awareness piece, the buddy system, that's why it's important.” 

With heat and humidity, first responders need to take precautions and they do, said Sofia Rosales-Scatena, Fort Wayne Police Department public information officer. 

“Everyone knows to stay hydrated,” she said. “Older officers usually take care of the younger ones. (The younger officers) don't know how quickly you can lose water in this heat.”

Officers working at the Three Rivers Festival are reminded at squad meetings to drink water.

“In the past, when I've worked the festivals, the police department provides water and the festival does, too,” Rosales-Scatena said.

Firefighters wear gear that protects them from fire but is not designed to keep them cool, said Adam O'Connor, Fort Wayne Fire Department public information officer.

“The firefighter's body heat is not allowed to escape and sweat is not allowed to evaporate which makes the firefighter very susceptible to heat exhaustion,” he said.

When temperatures are high, precautions are taken at every fire incident, he added.

“We rotate crews frequently and we have them rehabilitate inside of air-conditioned cabs,” O'Connor said. “Eighty-seven degrees can make you just as sick as 97. If you work in that gear long enough, you will start to feel the effects of heat exhaustion even in temps that may seem moderate.”

Firefighters, who face mandatory retirement at age 70, can build resilience to heat by exercising outdoors in the heat and staying hydrated, O'Connor added.

It's important that anyone outside – not just workers – listen to their bodies, as symptoms are the way the body gets the mind's attention, McMahan said. 

“If untreated, heat exhaustion can evolve into heat stroke, which is a medical emergency,” she said. “Don't let this happen – pay attention to your body.”

Anyone working on an outdoor job site should talk to their supervisor if they start to get dizzy, lightheaded or a bit confused, McMahan said. 

“There should always be several people designated to call 911 if folks start getting into trouble in the heat,” she said.

“The reason to establish this in advance is because people can become confused if they begin to develop heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.”

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