Essential Tips for Working in Extreme Heat



In order to keep themselves safe while working during periods of extreme heat, utility workers must first acknowledge the potential dangers they face.

Heat illness can sneak up on a person quickly, especially someone like a utility worker who is as tenacious and courageous as they come. The physical intensity of a job can further accelerate heat stress, as can humidity, direct sunlight, lack of air movement, clothing, and PPE.

According to data from OSHA, thousands of people succumb to occupational heat exposure every year. Some cases prove to be fatal. Most are preventable.

Acclimating to the heat

The majority of heat-related fatalities happen within the first few days of working in extreme heat. In many instances, the worker’s body is simply overwhelmed by the sudden burst of heat.

“If a utility worker is used to working in a climate that isn’t typically hot, there is a much greater risk for a heat-stress incident,” says Todd VanHouten, Senior Director of Strategy & Innovation at Cintas, which provides a variety of services and products to businesses including uniforms and PPE, first aid supplies, fire extinguishers, and safety training. “This could be the case when there’s a sudden heat wave in the peak of summer, or when a worker is relocated to an area with a much hotter climate. In these instances, awareness is the key.”

Workers need to allow their bodies to build up a tolerance to the heat. This is a process known as heat acclimatization. When executed correctly, workers can experience positive benefits like increased sweating efficiency, circulation stabilization, and the ability to perform work with a lower core temperature and heart rate.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) has developed an acclimatization schedule. For workers who have had previous experience with the job, the regimen should be no more than half of a typical shift on the first day, 60% on day two, 80% on day three, and 100% on day four. For new workers, the schedule should be no more than 20% on the first day, followed by an increase of no more than 20% each additional day for a period of 7-14 days. It’s very important for a trained team member to closely monitor how the new worker is acclimating to the heat.

Workers can typically maintain their acclimatization after two or three days off the job. But if they’re off for a week or more, they may need to start all over. Additional factors influence a person’s ability to acclimate and remain acclimated, such as their level of physical fitness. It’s always best to error on the side of caution.

The right gear is essential

Next to a failure to properly acclimate, OSHA says poor clothing selection is the biggest misstep outdoor workers can make. Clothing that holds in body heat can greatly accelerate heat stress. The challenge is that utility workers face other jobsite risks that require them to wear certain types of clothing – clothing that will protect against hazards like punctures and arc flashes.

Thanks to a wider variety of fabrics and innovations, today’s utility workers have far more workwear choices that take safety, compliance and comfort all into account. Photo courtesy of Cintas.

The good news is that a lot of innovation has been happening in the realm of workwear, giving utility workers more options to stay safe and compliant, as well as comfortable.

“The industry has come a long way in terms of technology and the types of fabrics that are available,” VanHouten says. “Look at flame-resistant (FR) clothing, for instance. There is a much greater variety of styles and fabric content.”

Several years ago, most of the FR clothing options were based on heavy, treated cotton. “It was basically a long-sleeve button-up shirt and work pants,” VanHouten says. “Now you have long-sleeve T-shirts and jeans that look and feel like regular jeans. Finding comfortable FR options is not as difficult as it used to be.”

The same can be said of hi-vis workwear. A utility worker who doesn’t need FR protection can simply choose from the many lightweight mesh vest options that are out there. “But you can’t throw a polyester vest on if you’re doing electrical work,” VanHouten reminds. “Thanks to brands like Carhartt and others, there is a plethora of FR options that have hi-vis reflective elements sewn right into the fabric. That doesn’t impact comfort, either.”

“Comfort” is a relative concept, though. “What one person finds ‘breathable’ might seem ‘scratchy’ to another person,” VanHouten says. That’s why it’s helpful when employers offer options.

When working in the heat, cotton is generally considered to be a great option because it’s breathable. There is also moisture-wicking technology that pulls sweat away from the body to the outside of the clothing where it can evaporate. For utility workers, however, there is a downside to most moisture-wicking workwear.

“Most of those fabrics are not flame-resistant,” VanHouten points out. “That said, there are also hybrid FR materials that do offer a certain level of moisture-wicking performance.”

Rest, hydration, and first aid

Utility workers need to listen to their bodies in extreme heat. They should take rest breaks whenever they begin feeling discomfort. This is especially true of workers who aren’t used to working in the heat. Workers can look for a shaded area to sit down for a few minutes, or maybe hop in their air conditioned truck.

NIOSH has developed a sample work/rest schedule for workers wearing normal clothing. Certain clothing and PPE could make working in the heat even more oppressive. Utility workers should adapt their work/rest schedules accordingly.Caucasian engineer man drinking water at the precast factory site, Worker man drinking water at construction siteAs a general rule in 95°F temperatures, utility workers performing strenuous work like climbing poles or using hand tools should work for 45 minutes and rest for 15. When the temperature climbs to 104°F, 20 minutes of work should be followed by 40 minutes of rest. For utility workers performing lighter work like operating sit-down machinery, a normal work schedule can be maintained until the temperature reaches 106°F.

Hydration is a critically important aspect of staying safe. Generally speaking, utility workers should drink at least 8 oz. of cold water every 15 to 20 minutes. In extreme heat when perspiration accelerates even more, electrolyte-infused drinks that are low in sugar and caffeine can be very beneficial.

VanHouten says Cintas is seeing growing interest in electrolyte powders and concentrates that are mixed with water in a bottle or jug. This gives utility workers a more cost-effective option for getting the large volume of hydration they need on the jobsite. Electrolyte-infused ice pops are also gaining in popularity.

Another preventive solution for the jobsite is a cooling collar you soak in water and wear around your neck. “There are also cooling vests that hold ice packs,” VanHouten says. “You can wear them either under or over your regular clothing. They can help utility workers stay cool for several hours by giving them a 10-20°F cooling benefit. There are even some FR-rated cooling vests out there.”

Cintas is a member of the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), a leader in the development of ANSI-accredited safety equipment standards. According to VanHouten, ISEA is working on a heat stress standard that will recommend certain PPE and other products that can help keep employees cool on the jobsite. A standard like that will greatly help both employers and employees understand what they can do to mitigate the risks of heat stress. Of all the outdoor occupations that face those risks, the utility industry is at the top of the list.

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