Thursday, August 19, 2021

Heat and the Buddy System

It's always a good idea to have a helper. They often go by different names (teammate, co-worker, significant other, partner, crew member, or friend), but they're there to watch out for you and share the work. The first part, watching out for you, is the most important one.

I work alone most of the time. Having a shortage of employees is not unique to my job, but for a year now we've had a couple of open positions. Corporate has restructured and consolidated operations to try to keep things moving, but the reality is that we have fewer people to get the same amount of work done, and this can lead to problems, especially in extreme weather.

Last week was a good example of why it's important to have someone keeping an eye on you:
  • Air temperatures were in the high 90s, with humidity that started the day at 100% and never dropped below 60%. 
  • Heat index, the opposite of wind chill, was well over 100° for most of the afternoon, most days. 
  • No wind or clouds made it even more miserable outside, which is where I was working. 
  • To make things just perfectly wrong, the location I was working at didn't have a working air conditioner. The building doesn't have central air conditioning, just a window unit that decided to stop cooling this year. Management doesn't want to put any money into that building because we no longer have staff there full-time.
  • The work I was doing involved hazardous chemicals, so on top of my standard boots and jeans I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and heavy neoprene gloves that go almost to my elbow. 
  • The chemicals I was dealing with have an affinity for water, so the common tricks to cool off that involve wetted cloth around the neck aren't an option.
  • Add in the unvented, splash-proof goggles that cover a third of my face and trap the sweat and it was not a fun week.

I've been doing this for several years so staying hydrated is not a worry; I have plenty of sport drinks and cool water on hand and I force myself to drink enough that I have to urinate. Electrolytes in the sport drinks keep my salt levels safe, but I supplement them with extra table salt on my food and Potassium tablets if I start to have cramping. This is not new to me; I know how to minimize the effects of the heat. 

It wasn't enough. As the week progressed, my normal schedule of come home, shower to cool off and get clean, eat dinner, and take care of normal chores before going to bed slowly morphed into come home and go to bed. The chores were the first to be dropped, then dinner, and finally the cooling shower. I just didn't have the energy to do it all. I try to write these articles on Tuesday and Wednesday and have them ready for editing before Thursday, but that was one of the normal “chores” that got dropped. By the time I cooled off after getting home Thursday, I finally got a chance to put the clues together:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Mild confusion
  • Periods of short, shallow breathing
  • Hot, sweaty skin
  • Lack of energy

Yes, I was dealing with heat exhaustion every day. 

We've covered heat injury before, and heat exhaustion is the middle ground between heat stress and heat stroke. The combination of high temps, high humidity (which prevents sweat from evaporating to cool you), no wind, and full sun were just too much for my aging body. When your body can no longer cool itself, is starts to take damage which can be lethal. 

I took a few days off work to recover, with lots of water and rest, and only went outside during daylight once in four days. As much as I hate to admit it, there are things I can no longer do as well as I could when I was in my 30s and 40s, and handling the heat just got added to that list. 

Working alone is not the best option, but it's not much worse than working with someone who doesn't know what to watch out for. Part of the week I had a helper, a 21 year-old kid who hasn't been trained very well (or he wasn't paying attention during training) and he just doesn't know what to watch for. He's scared of working around the chemicals, but I'm trying to train him on how to do it safely. 

I've since modified my work schedule: things are moving a lot slower, and I'm taking more breaks. The air conditioner at that location is still dead, but I've switched trucks to one that has a good AC and I will be taking my breaks in it. The boss isn't happy about the slower pace, but I really don't care about his happiness as much as I do about my health. I'm also keeping an eye on the other two guys who are close to my age for signs of heat injury when I see them, but most of their work is out of the sun and doesn't require the heat-trapping protective gear. They work together and keep an eye on each other pretty well.

Take care of yourselves, and watch out for those around you.

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