Summer is kind of a double-edged sword for HVAC contractors. On one hand, it’s among the busiest and, therefore, most profitable times of the year. On the other hand, it’s one of the most demanding times of the year, and technicians can easily work 70-80 hours a week. With those long hours, employee burnout becomes a concern, but that is not the only danger techs face in the field during the dog days of summer.
BEATING THE HEAT
For many contractors around the country, heat stroke and heat exhaustion remain the top safety concerns for technicians.
“Hydration and heat stroke are our two most important concerns,” said Matt Marsiglio, operations manager, Flame Heating, Cooling, Plumbing, and Electrical in Warren, Michigan. “To make sure our field staff is properly hydrated, we have coolers with ice cold water on each delivery vehicle, and we will deliver water to those in the field. We also make sure they take frequent breaks to cool down in their vehicles. We have also purchased cooling towels to help in the high temperatures. In extreme heat, we limit the amount of calls we take to prevent exhaustion. We will also rotate an ‘early off,’ which allows us to get each technician out of the heat for a few hours.”
Flame has its workmen’s compensation insurance agency perform training at the beginning of each warm season to educate staff members on heat safety. They do the same thing for cold exposure safety in the fall, Marsiglio noted.
“Educating our employees about safety risks is important because our employees’ safety and well-being is our No. 1 priority,” he said.
Gaithersburg, Maryland-based GAC Services also trains its employees during the off-season, since summers are typically too busy for technicians who are running jobs, according to Rich Biava, vice president of the company.
“Our first and foremost concern is [employee] safety from heat exhaustion,” he said. “We talk to the guys about heat exhaustion, and we’ve invested in a commercial ice maker as well as a filtered water tank in the shop. The guys can come in, get purified water, and fill their coolers with ice. On really hot days, we provide Gatorade to make sure the guys are staying hydrated. We tell them to make sure they take breaks and take the time to drink — just continually rehydrate.”
Paul Sammataro, owner, Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Plano, Texas, said his No. 1 safety concern being in north Texas is heat exhaustion and attic safety.
“We discuss extreme heat and the symptoms of heat exhaustion weekly leading up to the summer season,” Sammataro said. “Also, we provide plywood regularly for attic safety when working in difficult areas. Electrical is also discussed often, sometimes daily.
“Training and education is extremely important,” he continued. “I emphasize that injuries not only affect their ability to provide for themselves, but the company’s ability to serve our customers. We do this to hopefully avoid an unnecessary injury.”
In Texas, gas furnaces and air handlers tend to be located in the attic, explained Chris Crawford, service manager, Vanderford Air Inc., League City, Texas.
“When we’re doing an install, not only is it super hot and humid outside, but the temperature in the attic space is even worse,” Crawford said. “On top of that, it’s an enclosed environment, so it’s usually not well lit, and you can easily step through a ceiling. Lots of bad things can happen.
“You have to make sure the guys stay hydrated, that they’re watching each other for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and that their environment is the safest that it can be,” he continued. “We try to get them to take a break once an hour or so to get out of the attic. We have a giant ice machine at the shop, so our guys come in and load their coolers up and take water with them. And during those really hot months, we provide Gatorade for them in the powder form, so they mix it up with their water to stay as hydrated as possible. We also provide fans for them when they’re in attics, so they can get some air moving.”
Vanderford Air holds monthly safety meetings, and during the summer months, the topic is often the heat.
“The heat can do weird things that you wouldn’t really think about,” Crawford said. “For example, if you’ve got a piece of sheet metal laying outside for three or four hours and a guy walks over to grab it, but doesn’t realize it’s 450°F, he can easily get burnt. So, during the summertime, these meetings are usually wrapped around common safety procedures, knowing the signs of heat stroke, how to provide first aid, alerting first responders, and that sort of thing.”
The idea is to provide enough information to prevent heat stroke from happening, according to Crawford.
“We know it’s going to happen – somebody is going to get too hot one day,” he said. “Everybody knows to dial 911, but while you’re waiting around, there are some critical things you can do, so we make sure our employees are trained on those first-aid items as well. Because in Houston, with all the crazy traffic we have, it could easily be 20-30 minutes before an ambulance arrives. That’s a long time to wait if someone is showing signs of heat stroke.”
EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED
While out in the field on a hot summer day, the heat is not the only thing technicians have to worry about. Though it doesn’t happen regularly, sometimes wildlife can pop up where least expected.
Marsiglio jokingly told The NEWS that his company’s policy when encountering snakes, spiders, or wasps is to run.
“Seriously, we have wasp spray on each truck,” he said. “If they are stung, we have them go to the clinic to be treated to make sure there are no further issues. We don’t have too many snakes in our area, but we do encounter rodents from time to time. When that happens, we recommend the property owner have them professionally removed before we can provide service. We let our field staff know that if it doesn’t look safe, we don’t require our crews to work in the area, whether it’s in the house, on the roof, etc. We empower our employees to make the call due to the fact that it is their environment for that length of time.”
Biava said his guys definitely encounter the bizarre in the field.
“Our guys will take pictures and say, ‘Look what I found in this a/c unit,’ and you’ll see a snake curled up in there,” Biava said. “Basically, they will use a stick or something to move the wildlife out of the way, so they can continue to do the job. We’ve had wasps, bees, and things like that. Each truck carries wasp spray, and they will use it unless the nest is huge. We’ve also had bats in attics, even raccoons occasionally. We had one that was hissing at our guy. In those cases, we tell the owner we’d love to do the work, but they have to get a pest control person out there because the raccoon was being territorial and going after our guy.
“For the most part, most of the animals stay away from you,” he continued. “It’s true, they’re more afraid of you than you are of it, and they will often run away if they feel threatened. We’re lucky in Maryland, we don’t have many poisonous snakes or spiders, so that’s not a big concern for our employees. Quite honestly, we’ve had more issues with our guys getting bit by dogs over the last 10 years.”
Biava did recount one time when two of his employees used two whole cans of wasp spray to tackle a large wasp nest they had found.
“A little later that day, they had to solder the pipes from the new unit to the existing line set, and the person soldering didn’t realize the spray had went everywhere,” he said. “What happened next was the ground caught fire, so our guy pulled off his shirt and used it to put the fire out. We try to share stories like this to make our guys aware.”
In Texas, Crawford said he hasn’t had any issues with spiders, but snakes are another story.
“We do encounter snakes quite a bit, and we don’t have any kind of training on how to respond other than scream like a girl and run,” he joked. “To be honest, the main thing we encounter is usually wasp’s nests and bees around here. A lot of times, you’ll open up a panel on a packaged unit on a roof, or maybe a circuit breaker panel on the outside of a home, and there’s a wasp nest in there. We have a pretty serious form our guys fill out during the hiring process, so we know if they happen to be allergic to things like bee stings. We know if they are allergic, and if they call in immediately, we make sure we have the right stuff on hand. If they are allergic, we make them keep an EPI pen on their truck.”
Sammataro said his company keeps first-aid kits on all of its vehicles.
“We also drill into our techs to be aware of their surroundings and the exits of close quarters, like crawl spaces and attics,” he said. “We’ve encountered snakes, insects, dogs, and cats and will discuss different scenarios and share examples of how we should be handling them.
“For me, the worst was a raccoon hissing at me in a small attic with a small exit area,” Sammataro continued. “That wasn’t a fun position at all. Everybody has a different level of safeness, so I always teach them to let us know if they feel unsafe, and we will never push them, even if another tech is comfortable with the same situation. This is a dangerous job, and if precautions are not taken, serious injuries will happen as a result. Employee safety is a very important concern of ours.”
Publication date: 8/21/2017