A total of 4,679 workers were killed on the job in 2014 — that’s an average of 13 deaths every day — according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Additionally, fatal work injuries involving contractors accounted for 17 percent of all fatal work injuries in 2014. Of all causes, falls and electrocutions were deemed the most common.
Paul Sammataro, owner of Samm’s Heating & Air Conditioning in Plano, Texas, said electrocution is a concern for HVAC contractors everywhere, but especially in Texas. “We have a greater risk [of electrocution] in Texas due to sweating and dealing with electrical components. We’re always talking [to our employees] about the dangers of electrocution and making sure they’re verifying that all the links of power are off on a particular system. Water and electricity don’t mix, and when you’re soaking wet [from sweat], electrocution is a very real danger.”
While electrocution is worrisome, heat exhaustion is chief among Sammataro’s safety concerns. “We bring it up more than once during the summer because no one’s immune, and guys have gotten sick out there. Working in attics, it can get up to 160°F, which is very dangerous,” Sammataro said. “I tell people working alone to let customers know if they don’t hear from a worker once every 10 minutes to give a holler up to the hole and make sure they’re doing alright. And, I don’t have limitations on breaks. I trust my guys. I know jobs are getting done on time, so my thing is, if you have to get out of the attic, get out of the attic.”
While heat exhaustion is a primary concern in the summer months, winter brings a variety of dangers, too.
“Unlike in the Midwest, where you can get a foot of snow and everybody’s going to work and school the next day; here, we get flurries and everything shuts down. People are not used to driving in it; their vehicles are not equipped. And, down here, snow turns into sheets of ice because it melts and refreezes. It’s very dangerous. So, we talk about driving safety because inclement weather is guaranteed to happen once or twice a year. And, if a technician is not comfortable driving in those conditions, I won’t force him out there.”
BEAT THE HEAT
Erik Bryan, owner of Precision Air & Heating in Chandler, Arizona, noted excessive heat is his company’s most acute situation.
“We run on ambient temperatures in access of 115° for a couple of months out of the year. Some of the inner attic areas we work in can get to 185°-190°. If these guys aren’t properly educated on the effects of heat stroke, how to recognize when heat stroke is coming on, how to prevent it, how to stay hydrated, and what types of food to eat, then we can get into some pretty serious situations.”
Bryan said he hasn’t had a single year go by in the past five years where he hasn’t had at least one technician succumb to heat exhaustion and have to be taken to the hospital from a job site.
“We have monthly safety meetings, and we start pushing heat exhaustion education — the signs, staying hydrated, and keeping potassium levels up — from April all the way through August. We educate techs on the signs, like when you stop sweating or start feeling dizzy, and we feel this has had a positive impact. We remind them on a daily basis to look out for these little triggers that they can catch before they fall flat on their faces with a homeowner calling us saying, ‘One of your guys is passed out in our backyard or attic.’”
In addition to heat exhaustion, sun exposure is also a concern, Bryan noted. “We provide sunblock so our crews can protect their faces, ears, and the back of their necks from the sun. If a guy relocates from Michigan, or a place like that, he can get scorched. I’ve seen second- and third-degree burns. Sometimes, we’re out in the sun all day long.”
Precision Air & Heating provides all of its technicians with 5-gallon coolers, water, and ice.
“We also provide bananas so they can keep their potassium levels up. We stop off at a grocery store every morning and buy 40-50 bananas and the guys will eat those in the morning before they leave,” said Bryan. “Our efforts are paying off, as I feel our percentages likely rank very high against some of our competitors.”
Precision Air & Heating also incentivizes its employees by offering a $75 bonus for every 50 calendar days the company goes without an accident or injury. Bryan said he’s paid out the bonus quite a bit, sometimes four to five times consecutively. “It’s another added incentive we put out there that says slow down, pay attention to what you’re doing, and, every 50 days we’ll financially reward you for not costing the company money with a workers’ compensation claim.
“It’s very common in this industry to get careless, because the things we do are very repetitive, and complacency is something that can get ahold of you very quickly, “ continued Bryan. “And, generally, when you get complacent, you get hurt. Injuries are going to happen, but we do everything we can to limit their frequency.”
CUTS ARE COMMONPLACE
Hazards in the HVAC industry often line up with those in the construction field, according to Rick Pavia, safety director for Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, New York. Falls may cause broken bones or worse, and strains, especially to the lower back, are prevalent.
“HVAC work often requires workers to carry heavy equipment and tools in and out of homes and commercial buildings,” Pavia noted. “The frequency of back injuries resulting from material handling alone account for a large percentage of lost workdays and injuries requiring long-term care.”
Pavia said strains, sprains, and contusions are the most commonly reported injuries; however, lacerations are the most frequent. “Small nicks and cuts often go unreported, until sutures are required upon a trip to urgent care. Even with the use of appropriate gloves and other personal-protective equipment, HVAC technicians are exposed to sheet metal, sharp tools, and other jagged hazards in the ever-changing work environments they face on a daily basis.”
Additionally, in New York, technicians must battle lake-effect snow in the winter months. “Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo can average around 100 inches of snow annually, and some areas north of Syracuse get double that.” Pavia said. “Commercial HVAC service technicians must brave the cold, wind, ice, and deep snow to safely reach rooftop units, and all field technicians drive heavy-service vans in the same conditions. Employees are empowered to stop or change their work in any situation if they identify a safety risk. For example, when working outdoors, we have a policy that prohibits the use of extension ladders if wind speeds exceed 25 mph. If sustained winds are faster than 35 mph, no roof work is done whatsoever. Good judgement is encouraged with wind gusts and specific site conditions, but no job is worth doing at that time if it cannot be done safely.”
Pavia said he, along with direct supervisors, is always available by phone for a consultation on procedure.
RUSHING THE JOB
Sometimes accidents happen when technicians are rushing to finish a job, according to David Richardson, residential new construction inside operations manager of Weather Master Heating & Air Conditioning in Knightdale, North Carolina.
“Being in the residential new construction industry, our biggest safety concerns are our people not following company safety policies,” Richardson said. “As the work load continues to grow, along with the shortage of skilled manpower, our builders continue to push us to do more and do it faster. Unfortunately, some of our team members tend to bypass our safety policies, such as using their PPE [personal protection equipment]. Employees are trying to complete their jobs as quickly as possible, and, in doing this, they forget to put their hard hats or safety glasses on while drilling or cutting.”
Richardson said he continues to use PPE as a safety topic during meetings and performsspot checks throughout the day to ensure compliance.
“Our employees are very talented and have good intentions when it comes to safety, but we still have to remind them that their safety is the most important thing to us,” he said. “No job in our entire company is too important that we cannot take the time to be safe.”
PEOPLE AS A COMMODITY
“We’ve always taken safety to heart,” said Jim Bartolotta, executive vice president of Air Comfort Corp. in Broadview, Illinois.
To demonstrate this, the company implemented a full-time safety director position earlier this year.
“Our customers often use third-party administrators for their safety programs, and we have to provide mountains and mountains of information just to be authorized and certified. We feel our people are our most precious commodities, and keeping them working safe is one of the most important things we can do.”
Bob Fisher serves as the safety director for Air Comfort Corp. He holds quarterly safety meetings and weekly toolbox talks in which employees must agree, in writing, that they understood the information that was presented. He also recently brought in a third-party company to discuss lanyard safety for harnesses used at extended heights and the overall impact if a person is not properly tied off.
“When they’ve narrowly missed an incident or accident, we ask them to share that with all of the people in the group,” Bartolotta said. “Sharing these near misses with the other employees helps our guys as they’ll likely think about that incident the next time they’re performing that task. And, we just recently returned to incident reviews, where if somebody has an incident, we have them come in and debrief what happened and how it could have been avoided.”
The Chicago region deals with icy conditions where working on rooftops and around snowdrifts can be challenging.
“If we’re working on a particularly difficult rooftop in bad weather, we’ll have notes on file so our dispatchers and technicians know that site is unsafe in snowy or icy conditions,” fisher said.” We may have to wait a day or a few days until it melts. I know that’s kind of an innovative thing right now. Cold weather programs, heat illness, and fatigue are all things that are up and coming in safety.”
Additionally, though typically not an everyday concern, Bartolotta said the recent protests in Chicago over Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots on 17-year-old Laquan McDonald were also a concern for the safety of his employees.
“We questioned what it was going to be like, would any sort of civil unrest exist,” Bartolotta said. “I sent an email to our technicians and dispatchers stating, ‘By no means are we to put ourselves in any kind of unsafe or unsecure position.’ No service call is worth risking someone’s health. We want to make sure our people truly understand that we care about them first and foremost. We’ll work through the dollars and cents part of it later.”
Publication date: 12/21/2015