Martin Austin has worked some hot days in his 14 years with Halifax Water.
“I started actually in the meter shop, which was walking around on a day like today and getting meter reads, which, you know, definitely had some challenges,” said Austin with a chuckle Friday when the temperature was forecast to hit 30C in HRM .
Environment Canada has put out a heat warning for the next few days for the entire province. Humidex levels could spike into the high 30s and even 40s in inland places such as the Annapolis Valley.
“Watch for the effects of heat illness: swelling, rash, cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and the worsening of some health conditions,” the warning said.
More breaks, lots of water
“It’s definitely a draining experience” working outside in hot conditions, Austin said.
“You know you can’t necessarily work as quickly or as efficiently as you could when it’s a nice moderate 20 degrees kind of weather. The big thing people have to do is take more frequent breaks, make sure they’re drinking lots of fluids, you know, sunscreen even on a cloudy day because the last thing you need is a sunburn on top of it.”
While some work in non-air conditioned spaces or outside cannot be put off, less urgent tasks such as mowing the grass around a waste water site will be put off until cooler weather.
If a task must be done immediately, “(we can try) to do that first thing in the morning and then do the less arduous work in the afternoon,” said Austin, who is now a waste water treatment plant operator in Dartmouth.
He said there have been no serious health issues related to heat among his workers this summer. But the conditions have led to problems in sectors such as firefighting. One firefighter was taken to hospital and nine others were assessed for heat exhaustion on July 1 after they worked a fire at a grocery store in Kentville.
For outside work, crews who don’t have the option of moving to an air-conditioned part of a building for respite, it’s particularly challenging, Austin said.
“It’s difficult to escape the heat. We (Halifax Water) do have an anti-idle policy but sometimes you can jump into a vehicle and crank the A/C for a little bit and have a break in the vehicle.”
Employers safety top priority
Nobody from HRM administration was made available Friday to talk about heat and workplace issues. In an email Friday, an HRM spokesperson said staff who work outdoors are given heat stress guidelines as part of the municipality’s occupational health and safety manual.
“On hot days, staff are also reminded to stay hydrated, take breaks as needed and to monitor their own conditions as heat affects everyone differently,” the email said. “Safety is a top priority for all staff.”
Some HRM staff, such as lifeguards, receive additional training around sun safety. They are also provided with sunscreen and a sun hat.
Austin, who is also president of CUPE Local 227 that represents about 245 workers at Halifax Water in the drinking water and waste water system, credited the city for its handling of health and safety issues.
“Management to their credit, they’re supportive of, you know, we’re not going to go and cut grass on a day when it’s 35 or 40 degrees. There is the recognition that you’re not going to get that low level work that’s physically demanding done.”
Other organizations in which outside work is common said worker safety is a priority in hot conditions.
“We advise our crews working in the heat to periodically take rest breaks and frequently hydrate,” said Mina Atia, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power, in an email.
“We also urge them to continuously monitor for signs and symptoms of heat illness in themselves as well as their colleagues. Crews assess conditions such as extreme heat throughout the day and use their discretion, along with consultation with their supervisor, to determine whether work needs to be halted.”
‘Take every precaution’
Nobody was made available from the provincial government to speak about heat and working conditions Friday.
A spokesperson emailed statements from the Labor and Public Works departments.
It is important to take all precautions to avoid heat stress and UV overexposure, particularly in the workplace, the Labor statement said.
Severe thunderstorm watch now in effect for Hants and Lunenburg counties in NS Environment Canada is tracking a cluster of thunderstorms just north of New Ross moving eastward. Downpours are the main potential threat but gusty winds and small hail are also possible. #NSStorm pic.twitter.com/dzjWxrbUJz
— Allister Aalders (@allistercanada) August 5, 2022
“In Nova Scotia, employers are required to take every precaution that is reasonable to protect the health and safety of its employees under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. This includes limiting workers’ exposure to heat.
“We encourage employers to develop a heat stress strategy that considers employee training and education for workers to recognize the early stages of signs and symptoms of heat stress. If workers are aware of the signs and symptoms of heat stress and can remove themselves or co-workers from a hot environment in the early stages, a serious illness, like heat stroke or heat exhaustion, can be avoided.”
The Public Works statement said when significant heat and humidity are forecast, the department contacts managers and supervisors to remind their staff of the importance of hydration, sunscreen and seeking shade during breaks.
“We also stress to be alert for signs of heat stroke, heat stress and heat exhaustion. We also urge managers and supervisors to plan for their staff to do the more physical work earlier in the day, before hotter temperatures set in, and to plan for extra and frequent water breaks.”