Guarding Techs Against Killer Heat
Across the United States it’s been hot, miserably hot. This is the time of year when many hvacr contractors stand to make the most money.
Still, techs who work in unconditioned attics and on open rooftops are in potentially dangerous situations due to the heat. John Ambrosino, of Total Temperature Control (Wakefield, MA), put it this way: “I like the people I work with. I don’t want to kill them.”
Risks, PreventionAaron York, Aaron York’s Quality A/C (Indianapolis, IN), points out that while temperatures can get over 100 degrees Farenheit outside, in customers’ attics temps can rise to 160 degrees, and pretty close to that on the roof.
The sickest he’s seen a technician get on the job? The guy was “vomiting, hot and dry, ashen colored, had diarrhea, and was weak and wobbly” — very sick indeed. Following good heat prostration procedures would have prevented some of these effects.
That starts with getting the person out of the hot environment. Additional immediate measures need to be taken to cool down the body’s temperature. John DiMuccio, of Carjon Air Conditioning and Heating (Smithfield, RI), pointed out that, “If you don’t start cooling yourself right away, the effects can build, even though a person is out of the extreme heat.”
John Kerner, Cox-Powell Standard Sheet Metal Corp. (Norfolk, VA), keeps a product called an ICE pack in every first aid kit. “The device becomes cool when the cylinder within the pack is broken, providing immediate cooling relief.”
Heat exhaustion, a non-life-threatening condition, is caused by a combination of water and electrolyte loss. This is the reason why many contractors and techs keep sports drinks as well as water with them. It is important to replace the electrolytes as well as the water.
Richie Drew, Myrtle Beach Heating and Cooling (Myrtle Beach, SC), said that when he was 16 or 17 and first started working, he only drank Gatorade; he should have been drinking water, too. When he got out of the attic and the cool air hit him, he almost passed out. He learned that day.
Drew urges other contractors to know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke: headaches, nausea, cessation of sweating, the skin becoming dry, and disorientation.
According to Jeff Scherr, Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning (Billings, MT), temperatures in Billings can reach extreme lows in winter and extreme highs, like 103 degrees, in summer. So, shortly before the heat hits, Scherr’s safety training courses focus on how to avoid heat-related illness. (Most contractors contacted for this article said they also provide such training.)
The possibility of danger became a reality for Scherr. A few years ago, some of his techs were working on an asphalt rooftop when one worker was overcome by the heat. The other techs had to spray him down with a hose.
And at the ultimate extreme, Bob Dobrowski, Ideal Service Co./Blue Dot (Hayward, CA), recalls a case where a tech (not employed by Dobrowski) was found “dead, dehydrated, left in an attic to work by himself. Common sense would have prevented this.”
Strategies include starting as early in the day as possible, wearing appropriate clothing, cooling the workspace if possible, replenishing fluids by drinking regularly (not waiting until you are thirsty), and using a buddy system.
Early StartsAll the contractors contacted for this article said they start their crews earlier in hot weather. Dave Cotner of Allied Heating (Spokane, WA) says he will schedule some jobs as early as 3:30 a.m. The techs are then off the job by about 2 p.m.
Ambrosino’s techs’ day runs from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Crew sizes are increased, and people are rotated off. He also allows his techs to take summer vacations (no more than one person per crew at a time).
Another strategy involves programming summer work according to weather conditions. For example, on the day The News spoke with Ambrosino, it was 89 degrees, with 79% rh. The work consisted mainly of basement installations and commercial work.
Tim Cropp, residential sales manager at Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning and Heating (Fairfax, VA), mentioned another summer perk: “We have our technicians go home on time at least one day during the work week.”
“The installation crews come in earlier than technicians,” Kerner said. Their shift is 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Service techs’ shifts are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. “The customers cooperate and adjust their schedules to match ours.”
“A lot of people don’t like to see employees too uncomfortable,” added Ambrosino. “Everybody’s an employee somewhere.”
Cooler ConditionsMost of the contractors also said that summer-weight uniforms are the norm: shorts, ventilated caps, and short-sleeve shirts or t-shirts.
Cotner, however, said that his hands are tied; the Washington Department of Labor & Industries mandates that his techs wear long pants and boots.
Drew said that he provides a change of uniforms in the trucks so techs don’t have to go to the next job looking dirty and sweaty. His techs also bring fans to the site.
DiMuccio gets his installation crews in early, with the goal of having the system turned on to provide cooling to the work space. “We try to get the system running by 10 a.m.,” he says. “They have every piece lined up like a jigsaw puzzle.” Five techs show up at a job in the morning. One starts working on the piping, two run the electrical, and two more work on the sheet metal and air handler.
Dave Yates, F.W. Behler, Inc. (York, PA), explained that “If we’re installing a new a/c system, we’ll do our best to get the equipment running and leave final supply and return connections for the last thing.”
A couple of contractors said they were looking into different methods of portable, temporary cooling. Total Temperature Control recently bought small, portable split systems with a 15-ft span from North Star Industries. The unit discharges hot air out one side; “You put the condenser side somewhere else,” Ambrosino said.
DiMuccio is looking into getting packaged units with a 47- by 47-ft footprint. The trailer-mounted units are plugged into service at the jobsite. “A big, yellow hose like utility companies use goes into the attic window,” he said.
Steven Miles, Jerry Kelly Co. (St. Charles, MO), said that “For the folks on the roofs, we have ‘pop-up’ nine- by nine-foot canopies, on casters, to give them some portable protection from the sun.”
The use of “cool clothing” — vests, hats, and scarves that contain gel packs or ice — is open for debate. Some contractors said their techs found such clothing cumbersome. (A list of websites offering such clothing and accessories is included on the bottom of page 31.)
Service tech Pete Wright uses “a pith helmet which I put a flexible cooler pack inside of. I keep another pack in my ice chest and trade them out every 20 to 30 minutes. I also keep a spray bottle within reach; your body sweats and removes 970 Btu per lb of evaporated sweat. I can get the same cooling effect by keeping myself wet and retaining body fluid.”
HydrationWright lives in Tyrone, OK, where the heat index recently was 126 degrees. The contractor he works for is based in Liberal, KS.
“Thirst is not an indicator of hydration,” said Wright. “Once you are behind the power curve, you are screwed. You should drink at least a gallon a day if you are outside in the summer.”
Ambrosino has added a marketing twist. “A local company that bottles drinks put our company logo on it,” he said. The techs keep coolers on service trucks, and can offer customers old-fashioned root beer, iced tea, and flavored water. Of course, the drinks are for the techs, too.
Dobrowski said his company provides water, Gatorade, and salt tablets. Cropp’s company delivers “parts, invoices, and paychecks, along with a cold drink, in the summer. We do this so techs don’t have to come back to the shop.”
Cotner said he buys a pallet of Gatorade to dish out every morning before techs go out on the job.
York and others emphasized the importance of taking breaks regularly, “in a cool area if possible,” like the air conditioned service vehicle.
Drew’s company got an ice machine for the shop; he said it saves money in the long run. “The most important thing is keeping techs hydrated,” he said. Getting them to stop work and take care of themselves is another matter. That’s why working alone can be so dangerous.
Real Men Take BreaksSometimes techs, especially younger men, adopt a “macho attitude,” said Ambrosino. “They can’t accept the fact that they need to take a break.” That’s why it’s important that “Everybody, in a friendly way, is watching out for each other. We make sure someone is checking on [the tech in the attic] regularly.”
His techs also can call it quits if they decide working conditions are unsafe. Said Ambrosino, “We’re here to do a job, but we’re not here to get killed. They can tell the homeowner that ‘we want to do the best we can, and it’s too hot now.’ It’s too easy to make mistakes.”
York stressed the buddy system. “There must be two people — minimum!”
DiMuccio pointed out how easy it is to get caught up in the job. “A guy will keep on going,” he said. “It takes someone else to say, ‘Hey, you don’t look so good.’
“Younger guys will push it harder,” he added. “Older guys may have an experience behind them that taught them not to push it quite so hard in the heat.”
Kerner said that all his workers are provided with Nextel phones. Although they work in two-man teams, sometimes they have to be separated.
Miles also said that “We ‘Nextel’ them every so often to check on them. We advise the customer of the dangers associated with technicians working in hot, confined spaces, and we make sure the technicians know how to protect themselves.”
Drew says he usually needs to remind installation crews to take breaks and drink fluids more often; they work on a job longer than the service techs and lose track of time.
Like they used to say on Hill Street Blues, we all need to remember to “Be careful out there.”
Information for this article was gathered by News editorial staffers Karen Brohl, Barb Checket-Hanks, John Hall, Greg Mazurkiewicz, and J.J. Siegel.
Sidebar: Sites With Cool ClothingCool vests in “Deluxe,” “Lite,” and even a cool leather jacket are available from Cool Sport (http://www.coolsport.net/index2.html). The company also offers a head and neck band that conceals a cool pack, and a “Cool Pad” for a variety of applications. The 17- by 36-in. product would probably be a great addition to the driver’s seat.
Whitestone (http://www.whitestonedirect.com/) offers the Coolpack Vest. According to the company, “The vest also features a mesh vented construction, which allows the essential passage of moisture from the wearer.”
Glacier Tek Inc. (http://www.glaciertek.com/cooling.htm) offers Cool Jackets and Cool Vests, including a “concealable” Cool Vest.
The Sharper Image (http://store.yahoo.com/sharperimage-best/si528.html) offers a “Personal Cooler,” an evaporative cooling system that’s worn around the neck.
Publication date: 08/13/2001