Summertime heat means extra precautions for outdoor workers

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

LONE GROVE - The checklist for tree service crews ahead of any job will be fairly similar. Bar oil and gas for chainsaws, straps for hauling away limbs and brush, and the obvious safety equipment like glasses, ropes, chains and gloves are needed for most jobs.  

But for the past week, extra safety equipment has taken on an added importance for these workers — the cooler and a few towels. 

“I usually have two towels, one in the cooler and one around my neck,” said Khon Kan, a tree climber with almost 30 years of experience in the industry, as he donned climbing gear over a long-sleeve shirt and long pants.

Kan is among the roughly 800 tree trimmers in Oklahoma and more than 40,000 workers in the state with jobs that are primarily outdoors, like construction or agriculture, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Daytime temperatures this week regularly reached into the 90s, with heat indices topping 100 degrees, which led to a rather dangerous work environment for these employees.

How to keep your cool:These tips may help you avoid a heat-related illness

“If you have to work outside, make sure you find a lot of good shade,” Kan recommended.

Shade, proper hydration and frequent breaks are the biggest precautions taken by Kan and his crewmate John Diehle, who were tasked with removing three unhealthy trees from a Lone Grove backyard on Friday. Diehle worked in south Florida before coming to Oklahoma and said he is familiar with working in extreme heat. 

Khon Kan uses a chainsaw to clear limbs about 15 feet above the ground Friday, July 30, 2021. Recent heat indices over 100 degrees have means frequent breaks for Kan and other outdoor laborers.

“It’s 95 degrees in south Florida every day, this is nothing new for me. I like the heat,” Diehle said while also wearing long clothes in direct sun.

But beyond the obvious methods of staying safe in hot weather, the 60-year-old knows that lifestyle also plays an important part for outdoor workers. 

“It’s important to get a good night’s sleep [and] if you’re going to come out and work, you’ve got to have a good diet,” Diehle said. 

About 600 people in the United States die from heat-related illnesses each summer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2010 and 2017, the Oklahoma State Department of Health recorded 145 deaths in the state associated with excessive heat. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, examples of other outdoor employees include baggage handlers, electrical power transmission and control workers, and landscaping and yard maintenance workers. OSHA recommends these outdoor employees implement precautions and heighten awareness when the heat index climbs above 91 degrees.

John Diehle works a chainsaw in the summer heat Friday, July 30, 2021. Along with frequent breaks and hydration, 60-year-old Diehle relies on good sleep and a healthy diet to keep him safe while working in extreme heat.

While Kan and Diehle worked in that Lone Grove backyard, the air temperature was in the low 90s and the heat index was already near 105.

For Jerry Bridgman, owner of Jerry’s Tree Service, summer time means extra safety. He stays cognizant of weather conditions, including extreme heat, and tries to plan jobs around expected heat waves to protect Kan and Diehle. 

“We do slow down during the hotter season. We work a little slower because of the heat but we keep pressing on,” Bridgman said. 

For Wade Clayburn, owner of Clayburn Foundation and Home Repair, shifting work hours and selecting specific jobs during heat waves is how he keeps crews safe. Starting a job earlier in the day and extended breaks during the heat of the day are common, as is picking up work that will keep his crews indoors. 

“Some days we try to chase the sun (and) work in the shade as much as we can,” Clayburn said. "When you’re tired and hot, you have to take a break. You can’t push them too hard, especially in this heat.” 

A heat advisory issued by the National Weather Service in Norman was set to expire on Saturday evening ahead of expected thunderstorms on Sunday, but forecasts still predict more high temperatures and humidity through Sunday afternoon. High temperatures through the work week next week are forecast to stay in the 90s through at least Friday.