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Keeping your cool

September 19, 2010
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I am often entertained when I reveal to a new acquaintance that my occupation is facility manager on a college campus and they, almost without fail, reply, “You are so lucky to have summers off.”

A very common misconception held by those working outside our environment is the belief that when students depart for the summer we roll up the sidewalks, nail shut the front door and all take a well-deserved vacation for the entire summer.

I am confident each and every one of you as in-house facility directors or managers overseeing and working in maintenance and operations can attest that the summer months generate as much, if not more, demand than the rest of the year.

While summer is a time of picnics, parades and fun outdoor activities, it is important keep in mind the hazards associated with working in hot conditions.

Along with the bright summer sun comes high temperatures, humidity and seemingly endless project and preventive maintenance work.

Goes with the territory
Regardless of where you are in the country, hot sticky days are a fact of the summer season.

Much of the work done during the summer months by grounds, maintenance and cleaning crews is performed in hot, humid conditions or even out in the direct sunlight.

Performing tasks such as turf maintenance, roof repair, painting and countless other maintenance and repair tasks presents a risk of developing heat-related illnesses.

Even individuals in generally good health can fall victim if precautions are not taken.

First line of defense
It is the responsibility of every facility manager to know and understand the causes, symptoms and preventive measures in order to protect employees from this potentially serious condition.

The first line of defense is for the facility manager or director to develop policies aimed at protecting employees from heat-related illness.

Not all operations can accommodate bulk changes in shifts to cooler times of the day. However, measures such as allowing frequent breaks, providing plenty of water or other non-caffeinated drinks and doing awareness training are appropriate measures to take.

Too much to handle
People suffer heat-related illness when the body''s temperature control system is overloaded.

The body normally cools itself by sweating. However, under some conditions sweating just isn''t enough to cool the body sufficiently. In such cases, a person''s body temperature rises rapidly.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there are four primary factors that affect the body''s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather — temperature, humidity, radiant heat from the sun or other sources such as a furnace or oven, and air velocity.

Other conditions that can limit a body’s ability to regulate temperature include age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, poor circulation, sunburn, and drug and alcohol use.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports the illnesses that can occur from working in high temperature conditions include heat rash, heat cramps, fainting and, the two most serious heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is the body''s response to an excessive loss of water and salt contained in sweat.

While anyone can fall victim to heat-related illness, those most prone to heat exhaustion include elderly people, individuals with high blood pressure and people working or exercising in hot environments.

Warning signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting

A worker’s skin may be cool and moist. The victim''s pulse rate will be fast and weak, and breathing will be fast and shallow.

If heat exhaustion is untreated, it may progress to heat stroke.

Seek medical attention immediately if the symptoms are severe or the victim has heart problems or high blood pressure.

Otherwise, help the victim to cool off, and seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or last longer than one hour.

Cooling measures that may be effective include: Drinking cool, non-alcoholic beverages; rest; a cool shower, bath, or sponge bath; an air-conditioned environment; and lightweight clothing.

Heat stroke
Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature and the body''s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down.

A worker’s body temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes.

Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given.

The warning signs of heat stroke vary but may include:

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F, orally)
  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

What to do
If you see any of these signs, you may be dealing with a life- threatening emergency.

Have someone call for immediate medical assistance while you begin cooling the victim.

Things to do include:

  • Get the worker to a shady area.
  • Cool the victim using whatever methods you can.
  • Monitor body temperature, and continue cooling efforts until body temperature drops.
  • If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instructions.
  • Do not give the victim alcohol to drink.
  • Get medical assistance as soon as possible.

These self-help measures are not a substitute for medical care. However, they may help you recognize and respond promptly to warning signs of trouble.

Your best defense against heat-related illness is prevention. The American Red Cross offers these tips for preventing heat related illnesses:

  • Dress for the heat — wear light weight clothing that is light in color.
  • Drink plenty of water even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Eat small meals and eat more often — avoid high protein meals that increase metabolic heat.
  • Avoid using salt tablets unless directed to do so by your doctor.
  • Slow down and reduce strenuous activity.
  • Stay indoors when possible.
  • Take regular breaks — give your body a chance to cool down during physical activity.

Staying cool and making simple changes in your fluid intake, activities, and clothing during hot weather can help you and your employees remain safe and healthy.

Casey Wick is Assistant Director of Physical Plant, Custodial Services, at Hamilton College, Clinton, NY. Previously, he was Maintenance Group Leader and Facilities Management Intern/Recycling Coordinator at Penn State Hazleton. He is a member of the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, and is a Registered Executive Housekeeper with the International Executive Housekeeping Association. He can be reached at

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