Lake Havasu, Arizona, is the hottest city in the U.S. It’s not uncommon to have multiple days in the 120s — so hot that some companies close down during the hottest part of the day.
How do HVAC technicians cope? Enter creative Person Protective Equipment (PPE) — and some strategic cooling-off practices.
“When we think PPE, we have the hardhat, safety glasses, all the basic things … but we’re usually thinking, ‘What can we do to help our technicians who are out there in that crazy heat?’” said Amanda Zinc, president of Air Control Home Services in Lake Havasu. Besides the obvious sunhats, the company provides E-Z UP tents, cooling vests, and Hydro Flasks and unlimited Gatorade.
“We have a freezer [at the office] that we keep stocked at all times with frozen water bottles that they can come get as the day goes on,” Zinc said. “And it might sound silly, but we let the service technicians come here and take 20- or 30-minute naps, and basically it lets their core temperature cool down. When they come here and they take their little cat-nap, it reenergizes them instead of getting to five o'clock and they’re completely tuckered out.”
Tye Leishman, president at Tempco Heating & Cooling Specialists, works in quite the opposite climate —Powell River, located on the west coast of British Columbia (just north of Washington State), where summer temps rarely rise above the low 80s. He doesn’t have to worry about techs overheating, but he does worry about safety because he said it feels like it falls by the wayside.
“A lot of times, the conversation will come up when somebody cuts their finger and you realize, ‘Well, he should have had gloves on — so everybody, as a reminder, make sure you keep your gloves on when you're working with sheet metal,’” he said.
Leishman’s techs have rubber gloves and leather gloves. They have a hard hat, ear protection, and eye protection, all of which Leishman purchases from their refrigeration supplier.
“I think as long as you have the safety equipment that is going to protect you, it's really up to personal preference because you want the technician to feel comfortable,” he said. “Obviously, if they aren't feeling comfortable wearing the PPE, they're not going to.
“It's one of those things where there's obviously safety regulations, and at the same time, there's the ‘real world’ where … you may have somebody who is very cavalier and is very comfortable taking risks, and alternatively, somebody that's nervous to step up a three-foot stepladder,” he continued.
As an employer, Leishman works to help all his team members feel and be completely safe.
“I've never had a situation where someone has asked me for a type of PPE and I would ever consider saying no. If someone has a safety concern, we deal with it right away.”
Culture of Safety
At Air Control, the decision on what PPE to buy is made at an ownership level. Zinc buys equipment online, making selections based on safety requirements and what has the best reviews.
“Having said that, any suggestions that we have from the guys — and we always encourage suggestions — we really do take into account … anything that they're thinking may help them out there,” she said. “We preach safety here. If they're on a job and they don't feel safe, or they're on a job and they need an extra hand, or they're on a job and they need a crane that the job wasn't figured for, we don't bat an eye.”
Zinc said her employees are very accepting of wearing PPE, something she chalks up to the company’s longstanding culture of safety.
“Our guys know that we've got their back, and in turn, they follow the safety protocols that we have in place,” she said. “My dad started the business 30 years ago and he was a service technician, so he comes from a field person’s perspective. He always preached safety to the guys — and also to the office, so the guys know that the office has their back and we're going to do whatever we need to do to take care of them. So a lot of times what we're telling the guys, safety-wise, they pretty much just buy in.”
Of course, having PPE available is one step; knowing how to use it properly is another, especially when it comes to more complicated equipment.
Techs at Air Control do all the required OSHA training, as well as providing opportunities for review and practice. Right now, the company is working on a commercial job that requires the use of harnesses.
“Before we step into anything that’s not the normal day-to-day PPE, we always have safety meetings where we review anything they need to be aware of, any OSHA topics that fall into that category, and just make sure everybody's up to speed … so we're not showing up on a job site like, ‘Oh, wait, how does this go? I don't remember,’” she explained. With this particular job, she sent the harnesses home with the techs so they could try them on and get used to how they fit, since they hadn’t worked with harnesses for a while.
Leishman has also taken steps to keep safety top of mind. Recently, he has started sending out a mass text to technicians “with just a one-line on safety, to remind everybody about keeping their head on straight” every morning before work.
“We should be addressing one small aspect of safety on a weekly basis because it is so easy to be out of sight, out of mind, and everybody does get comfortable,” he said. “I'm sure some people would say that it's gotten out of hand and ‘there's got to be a handrail on a swing set’ kind of thing. But time and time again, guys will get injured, guys will slip, guys will cut their hand, whatever the situation is. You might be trying to get home quickly to get your kids to soccer practice. You've had a long week, you just want to go home — things like that. Safety is one of the first things that goes out the window when you get in a rush and you're just trying to get the job done.”
Leishman said his technicians are receptive to that message.
“I think everybody understands the risks and is very open to PPE,” he said. “We have a very young crew. So I think as compared to the old-school technician that maybe didn't wear ear protection or eye protection — or even hand protection, for that matter — it's a pretty easy sell. Guys want to be safe; guys want to go home with everything intact.”
Masks and Gloves in the Heat of Summer?
As part of the company’s COVID-19-related precautions, Air Control technicians wear masks, gloves, and booties to their customers’ homes and wipe down anything in the home after they touch it.
Add in summer temperatures, and it could make for a lot to handle.
“Time will tell, but some of the guys have already said they’re start to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the mask on,” Zinc reported. “And the guys wearing plastic gloves … it’s so hot now that they just sweat. Their hands get all ‘pruned’ up.”
Some of the work takes place outside or away from the customer, which leaves some room for a break from the PPE.
“When we're inside the home, we're wearing those items, but if we're outside and working on the roof and we're not in contact with that customer, we are allowing techs to not have that mask on so they can breathe — especially if they're up in an attic or something of that sort,” Zinc said.