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Working up a head of steam

When it sizzles, firms find ways to keep their outdoor employees cool.

June 21, 2008|Conor L. Sanchez | Times Staff Writer

The heat is on in Southern California. Just ask roofers, officers directing traffic, car washers, outdoor repairmen and laborers of all kinds.

With the first day of summer hitting today, outdoor workers were already coping with 100-degree temperatures and higher Friday. Weather records were being broken. Employers were scrambling to make sure workers had enough water and shade. And state officials warned this may be only the beginning.

"It's going to be hotter this summer," said Len Welsh, chief of the state's worker safety agency Cal/OSHA, which released an advisory for employers reminding them to take precautions during extreme weather.

There have been three worker deaths from the heat already this year in California, he noted, "which is not good -- so many so soon." In 2006, there were eight such deaths, and two more in 2007.

"We're not going to let it go on," he vowed. "We're going to keep going after it."

On Friday, temperatures soared past 100 degrees in many spots, with a record 111 in Woodland Hills. Burbank tied its 1973 record of 106 degrees. The thermometer hit 97 downtown, 100 in Pasadena, 103 in Anaheim and 109 in Chino.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on state agencies to prepare for extremely high temperatures over the weekend.

"I have directed my Office of Emergency Services to coordinate with state and local agencies and do everything we can to ensure personal safety for all Californians during high temperatures today through the weekend," the governor said in a written statement.

Early Friday morning, outdoor laborers were already breaking a sweat. In Glassell Park, electrician Mike Calame was lathered in perspiration as he spoke from a 4-foot hole drilled into a sidewalk. "Look at me, I'm pouring right now," he said.

He and co-worker Jeff Flannery were helping with the installation of a traffic light. They typically work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to avoid the hottest part of the afternoon. During the day, Calame checks surf conditions by phone, and to beat the heat he heads straight for the ocean at the end of the workday.

"I check the surfline on my breaks," he said with a chuckle. "And if it's good, I load that truck and boogie."

While many anxiously await a chance to cool off, some workers were undeterred by the heat. With the sun beating down on him, David Heney, 67, sought refuge under the nearby trees as he took a break from his job tending the cricket fields in Van Nuys.

"I'm nuts," the retired business owner said. "There's an old saying from years ago that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. I like the heat."

Hailing from Australia, Heney retired in 1999 and now splits his time between the United States and his native country. For nine months out of the year he works as the "curator" of the Leo Magnus Cricket Complex in Van Nuys, preparing the playing field for the league games on weekends.

At Glenrock Car Wash in Eagle Rock on Friday morning, customers had barely begun trickling in when workers noticed the temperature. Manager Tom Herrera declared, "I'm pretty hot. But if you start thinking about it, then you feel it. As long as we're busy, we don't notice the heat."

Jenny Day has been directing traffic for five years in Los Angeles. Every day from 4 to 6 p.m., she alternates with other officers at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Soto Street. "Our supervisors bring us water out to the middle of the intersection," she said. "At 5 p.m. we get a break so we're not out there for the full two hours at the intersection."

Hot days like Thursday and Friday are a challenge for California's biggest private and public employers, who often have large crews working outside.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, where the high temperature was 101 degrees by noon Friday, worker stations were stocked with ice bags and jugs of water to keep workers in good shape.

"We have an operations crew that all they do is drive around delivering ice and water to every single workstation in the park," said Sue Carpenter, public relations manager at the theme park. "We really encourage our workers to hydrate and to take their breaks."

Southern California Gas Co., the nation's largest gas utility, employs many workers who spend their entire day outdoors. Spokeswoman Denise King emphasized the importance of ensuring that they remain hydrated throughout the day.

"It's our policy to provide training on heat illness prevention in addition to emphasizing breaks and adequate consumption of water," she said, "so they can stay hydrated during periods of soaring temperatures."

Workers at Rey'crest Roofing in Glassell Park stop if it gets too hot. They'll call it a day and wait until it gets cooler, said supervisor John Camarena. "Our guys, they carry with them two water jugs, some ice, first aid kits and usually have a meeting in the morning before they go on roof. . . . If it gets too hot, we pull off."

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