Terry McDonald: Site Safety

Summers seem hotter than ever, so it's extra important to keep your employees hydrated and their workspace ventilated in order to avoid "sweaty hands" syndrome.

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We are approaching—if we’re not already into—the hottest and most humid time of the year. The vast majority of gear shops that I have seen over the years do not have air conditioning. This presents a variety of safety issues that must be dealt with. There are, of course, the issues of our employees becoming overheated, and even suffering heatstroke or worse. These health problems must be dealt with and may require allowing more frequent breaks, having a designated cooling area, being sure to provide an adequate means of air circulation, and making sure that plenty of cool hydrating liquids are available. It used to be that we were all advised to provide salt tablets to our employees that were subjected to extreme heat, but the latest information indicates that this is not necessary and can actually create bigger problems than it solves.

All of the health issues aside, there are many other safety issues that the weather this time of year creates. Think about sweaty hands when dealing with sharp cutters and freshly cut parts that have sharp burrs—and I am only talking about the potential hazards to the employee. Just think about the potential loss of production. Not only can the employee be injured, but the parts and cutters can also be damaged. Heat treatment is a subject being covered elsewhere in the issue. The potential for hazards in the hot weather and the heat-treat department is great. It’s not always easy to remember that the parts that are cool enough to handle in an hour in November probably will still be too hot to handle after an hour during July. Of course, the health hazards are present to an even higher degree when we are talking about a normally hot area, such as heat treat. But I digress; back to the sweaty hands.

What can we do to lower the potential hazard? One of the answers is an air mover along the lines of a fan, which greatly enhances the evaporation rate and will create a less-sweaty situation. Also, an adequate supply of towels to keep our employees’ hands dry must be made easily and handily available. The towels can be fabric or paper, whichever is the best choice for your shop. Another potential hazard that is amplified during hot weather is the fact that the coolant that we use to lubricate and cool the cutting areas obviously will not remain as cool, or even cool down as rapidly, as we expect. You will also have a faster rate of evaporation, which will affect the concentration of any soluble coolants you are using. This can cause finish problems, as well as more problems with unpleasant odors, which in turn causes headaches and unhappy employees.

The clothing your employees wear is also a concern during the summer season. Maybe your company has a dress code, or at least certain expectations that you’ve made clear to your employees, but it’s very important to make sure people don’t put themselves in danger by wearing the wrong clothing in an attempt to deal with the heat. If you think about it, too little clothing presents just as much of a problem as too much clothing. In the first instance the person’s arms and legs might not be adequately protected from sharp edges or chemical contaminants if they’re wearing short sleeves, or even short pants. A good idea would be to encourage them to purchase lightweight materials that cover their arms and legs, and to provide good airflow so that their sweat will evaporate and humidity will be swept away. And in the case of too much clothing—which is more of a concern during wintertime, of course—extra fabric can get caught, pulling someone into moving mechanical parts. If you think about it, though, there are some people who wear large, flowing sports-type shirts even during the summer months, and that is probably something to be discouraged, especially if the employee is working in an area where equipment is in operation. It’s a careful balance to keep in mind, because you don’t want your employees to endanger themselves because of what they’ve decided to wear that day, but you don’t want them to be hot, miserable, and rushing through a job in order to escape the heat, either.

And that’s another factor we have to contend with in the heat. How many times do you recognize the added amount of crabbiness in your fellow employees when the weather gets uncomfortable? I see that reaction much more due to hot weather than I do during cold weather, which still surprises me. But we have to be aware that hot weather does have an adverse effect on our moods, and that can have an adverse effect on the safety level in our operations. 

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is partner and manager of Repair Parts, Inc., and a current member and past–chairman of the American National Standards Institute B11.11 Subcommittee on Safety Requirements for Construction, Care, and Use of Gear Cutting Equipment. McDonald writes this monthly column specifically for Gear Solutions magazine, and he can be reached at (815) 968–4499 or rpi@repair–parts–inc.com. The company's Web site is [www.repair–parts–inc.com].