Why on earth am I writing about winter in October? Trust me, I have no desire to see the white stuff go flying by, hear the whistling wails of winter storm winds, or see the ever-present gray skies. But, as they say in my favorite television series, “Game of Thrones (GOT),” “Winter is coming.” And the HVAC Industry needs to get ready.
The world in which GOT takes place is one divided by many things, not the least of which are its two seasons. To quote the GOT website, “Summers span decades, winters can last a lifetime.”
Thank goodness winters in our world are nothing like that. But the weather can get dangerously cold, and HVAC field service and installation crews are exposed to all of winter’s harshness, especially in the northern U.S. and Canada. According to the 2017-2018 Old Farmer’s Almanac, we are in for “a colder winter than last year but still above normal.” In fact, the almanac predicts precipitation to be at above-normal levels throughout the country, which means above-normal amounts of snow.
What does this mean for the average field service technician? First, even though the temperatures may not break any record lows this year, it’s still going to be cold, and that means being exposed to potential frostbite. Add to that the predicted precipitation, and it will be wet as well. Cold plus wet equals danger. Plus, this combination can create unsafe conditions on rooftops, sidewalks, and roadways. So, here are some tips to get your field coworkers prepared to ensure they are safe as they work outside during the upcoming winter.
This one is obvious but often overlooked. Service and installation technicians need to be properly dressed. That doesn’t just mean wearing long sleeves and a jacket. It does mean dressing in layers, avoiding cotton clothing, and wearing warm headgear.
Their extremities need to be protected most of all — things like fingers and ears typically are the first to show signs of frostbite. Make sure technicians wear hats and gloves that don’t interfere with their work but are warm enough to help them withstand falling temperatures. Also, make sure their boots are well-insulated and have good traction. Oh yeah — waterproof footwear is a must.
In addition, it’s always a good idea for technicians to keep some extra dry clothes in their vehicles in case they get wet or sweat. Moisture or dampness can increase heat loss from the body, and that is bad news in cold weather.
Here are some resources on proper clothing from our brethren up north at The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). They have some very specific clothing tips here at http://ncilink.com/warmclothingtips. In addition, this website for police officers offers some very useful tips on what to wear and not wear, how to dress in layers, and much more at http://ncilink.com/coptips. This is excellent advice for HVAC contractors as well.
WEAR EYE PROTECTION
Believe it or not, ice, snow, and excessive ultraviolet radiation can lead to eye injuries. Things like sun glare and blowing ice crystals can impact vision and potentially pose a safety hazard, especially if your coworkers are on rooftops or other elevated areas. Ski masks, sunglasses, or other forms of proper eye protection should always be on hand should the weather take a turn for the worst while out in the elements.
AVOID CAFFEINATED DRINKS
Specifically, hot coffee. What? This seems anti-American, right? But according to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), relying on coffee to warm you up can be a bad idea. This is because caffeine can increase your heart rate, cause blood vessels to constrict, and prevent blood from flowing as freely through the body. This can make it hard to stay warm. They recommend choosing decaf coffee or another hot drink that has minimal caffeine. For example, they say to drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks).
This makes sense to me, but wouldn’t have been on my A-List. According to OSHA, food provides the energy needed to generate heat, and the right diet is particularly important for outdoor workers. Eating generates heat and helps warm your body. This process is called thermogenesis. Thirty to 60 minutes after you eat, your body generates 10 percent more heat than it does on an empty stomach, and the energy released during digestion increases your metabolism.
Furthermore, your field service and installation technicians should always carry some food with them. A drop in their body temperature increases hunger. Some good food items to have handy include a supply of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, an energy bar, or cookies in case their body heat needs to be re-fueled.
WARM UP YOUR TRUCK
This is another no-brainer, but something many people do not do. Depending on the truck and its age, it can take a few minutes to warm up. If the tech is cold and needs to get out of the weather, getting into a cold truck doesn’t help.
According to OSHA, all outdoor workers should be properly trained in how to safely work on rooftops or elevated heights. They also say that employers should make sure their coworkers know how to safely use ladders, be very conscious and careful of power lines, and limit the amount of time they are exposed to the elements.
Other OSHA safety tips include:
- Workers should take frequent short breaks in warm environments to allow their bodies to warm up;
- Work should be scheduled for the warmest part of the day;
- Workers should avoid exhaustion or fatigue because energy is needed to keep muscles warm;
- Workers should use the buddy system — service and installation technicians should work in pairs. This way they can look out for one another and be aware of any danger signs;
- Drink warm, sweet beverages (sugar water, sports-type drinks) and avoid drinks with caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas, or hot chocolate) or alcohol;
- Eat warm, high-calorie foods, such as hot pasta dishes; and
- Be aware of workers’ medications, their poor physical condition, and/or illnesses, such as diabetes, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease. These are all high-risk factors when working outdoors in the cold.
These tips are for naught if your coworkers don’t get enough sleep. Outdoor work is hard, even under the best weather conditions, and cannot be safely done with just a few hours of sleep. Plus, well-rested technicians are sharper technicians and can do a better job — especially when troubleshooting issues with the outdoor components of mechanical systems.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen — winter is coming. But it isn’t here yet, and there is time to get your teams ready for when those cold winds, rain, sleet, and hail start blowing. For those of you who work in the elements — hot and cold — I thank you, my heating and cooling system thanks you, as does my family.
Stay safe, my friends.
Publication date: 10/16/2017