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High temperatures slow work, trigger special precautions for outdoor laborers

High temperatures are making tough jobs harder for people working outdoors in Kern County, and recently high humidity and poor air quality aren't helping.

Probably the biggest impact the ongoing heat wave has had locally is shortened work hours for some crews. The workday starts and ends earlier, which can lower productivity and reduce paycheck totals.

"The guys don't necessarily want to go home" when temperatures rise to the upper 90 degrees, said pistachio orchard professional Josh Newfield, owner of Newfield Ag Management. "A lot of time they do want the hours. They want the work."

OILFIELD HEAT

A similar situation faces oilfield workers who have recently been placed on reduced schedules because of the heat, Bakersfield oilman Chad Hathaway said. In his case, the reduced availability of electrical power during the heat wave presents an additional problem.

"It's causing a lot of us havoc and forcing a lot of us to shut down and start up and putting everyone at risk of an accident that is out of our control," Hathaway said by email Monday.

Construction being another activity sensitive to high temperatures, contractors working on the Centennial Corridor transportation project have requested and received the city of Bakersfield's permission to work late at night in order to avoid the worst of the heat.

The good news is that these scheduling adjustments haven't slowed work on the corridor, city Project Manager Luis Topete said.

Recent humidity has complicated matters — California Farmworker Foundation Executive Director Hernan Hernandez called it "suffocating at times." But high moisture content in the hot air does not trigger special workplace precautions the way high temperatures do.

REQUIRED PRECAUTIONS

Cal-OSHA has been working with employers to remind workers of preventative steps that must be taken to minimize the chance of heat illness, which can be fatal.

As temperatures near 95 degrees, laborers unaccustomed to working in such conditions must be observed by a supervisor or other designee for their first 14 days on the job.

Communication is another emphasis: To avoid accidents, workers and their supervisors must stay in close contact throughout the workday. Employees must be reminded of their right to cool-down breaks and the need to drink extra water.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cal-OSHA says it's also important that employers provide adequate shade while ensuring workers maintain a safe distance from each other, including through the use of staggered breaks, increased shaded areas "or both." Additionally, the agency said employers need to conduct extra disinfecting procedures at restroom facilities and water sources.

MASKS OUTSIDE?

The necessity of wearing a mask can make outdoors work harder, Cal-OSHA warns.

"Employers should be aware that wearing face coverings can make it more difficult to breathe and harder for a worker to cool off, so additional breaks may be needed to prevent overheating," an agency spokesman said by email. "Workers should have face coverings at all times, but they should be removed in outdoor high heat conditions to help prevent overheating as long as physical distancing can be maintained."

The agency added that high humidity limits the body’s ability to cool through evaporation, increasing the risk of heat illness. It also said that while poor air quality doesn’t directly increase the risk of heat illness, "it can increase cardiovascular risks and put additional strain on the body’s cardiovascular system, which may also be stressed in high heat conditions."

Pete Belluomini, vice president of farming operations at Lehr Bros. Inc., said he's grateful his crews recently finished up the potato harvest and are therefore less busy now than before. Workers are now cleaning up fields in preparation for the next season, which is mercifully less work during this time of year, he said.

Lately crews are starting their days at 5:30 a.m., which he said is pretty standard for this time of year. Although some workers would rather work longer hours, he said employees get dismissed when it gets too hot.

"When you're getting in the 90s and you're starting to flirt with 100, it's time to shut it down," he said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf