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Outdoor workers are taking heat wave seriously

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Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 10:14 am

OMAHA - When temperatures spike, even trash collectors get curbside service.

Deffenbaugh Industries is delivering ice, Gatorade and water to its Omaha crews to lower the risk of heat stress, said Tom Coffman, company spokesman.

"We know from experience, 50-plus years, to take this stuff pretty seriously," Coffman said. "People get hurt, people can die."

So far this week, at least 10 people have been admitted to Omaha emergency rooms because of the heat. The number is likely to rise as people push through the hottest weather of the summer.

Last year, a 48-year-old Council Bluffs man died on his way home from his roofing job on a day when temperatures in the Omaha area reached 102 degrees. The death was believed to be heat-related.

While a breakdown of this week's hospital visits for heat problems wasn't readily available, outdoor workers tend to make up the largest percentage, said Dr. Ron Sarno, emergency room medical director for Midlands Hospital in Papillion.

Roofers in particular and construction workers generally are most vulnerable, he said.

"They're a tough group," he said. "But once you get (ill) you don't really realize what's going on, and it tends to fairly rapidly spiral downward."

If history is any guide, local emergency rooms can expect an uptick in heat-related illnesses this week, Sarno said.

That's because heat stress is cumulative. People who haven't been taking good care of themselves -- drinking plenty of water, cooling their core, eating well and getting sufficient sleep -- experience worsening effects two or three days into a heat wave.

Lori Groves, service leader for the emergency room department at Omaha's Methodist Hospital, said the hospital has seen more heat-related illness in the past three days than it has all summer.

Federal labor standards apply to the outdoors just as they do to indoor work sites, said David Alexander, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

For three years, OSHA has teamed with the National Weather Service to highlight the risks that heat poses to outdoor workers.

Regulators for OSHA regard a heat index of 103 to 115 degrees as a high risk to outdoor workers, while an index of 115 degrees or higher is "very high" and requires aggressive actions by employers to protect workers.

This week's regional heat indexes, according to the weather service, have been 100 to 109 degrees.

Mike Baker, business manager for Local 21 of the International Brotherhood of Ironworkers, said workers and employers have become more aware in recent years about the risks of heat-related illnesses.

Local 21 is one of the few union locals in the Omaha area to sign a formal alliance with OSHA to improve working conditions, Baker said.

"Our employers go out of the way to help our workers," Baker said. "It's hot, especially on top of a building. We are out there in the elements. We can't invent a big shade tree."

Deffenbaugh, which collects garbage, recyclables and yard waste for the City of Omaha, has boosted training and added staff so crews can slow down, take more breaks and stay hydrated, Coffman said.

"We expect our guys to go slower. That's part of the equation," he said, adding that the city has been a good partner in protecting Deffenbaugh employees.

City officials have advised the public to expect delays in trash collection this week because crews have been told to go slower, drink more fluids and take more breaks in the shade.

Although Deffenbaugh fell slightly behind Monday, all routes were caught up by Tuesday evening, said Marty Grate of Omaha's Public Works Department.

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