Creating a Pipeline to Heat Stress Prevention

Although the recent rash of oil spills and fatal explosions at petrochemical companies has made headlines, another threat menaces employees: heat stress.

By Katherine Torres

When thinking about hot work environments, petrochemical workers come to mind. Not only do they have to battle sweltering temperatures when working on oil rig platforms in warm climates, they also work in and around furnaces, oil tanks and excavated ditches, and with equipment that can reach temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit when exposed to radiant heat.

Mix sizzling temperatures with protective clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) and you have a recipe for heat stress. Take the situation described by Ken Brinegar, manager of safety programs for the Houston-based Kinder Morgan product pipeline company.

When working for another petrochemical refinery 10 years ago, Brinegar observed a worker who was welding a pipeline at the bottom of an excavated ditch collapse of heat exhaustion. The reason: the worker was working in 90-degree-plus temperatures while fully clothed in personal protective gear that included heavy clothing, a full face hood and leather sleeves.

The worker was moved to a shady area, given fluids and then taken to the hospital. He survived the incident, but Brinegar notes how important it is to monitor workers who are performing such tasks. He emphasizes the importance of looking for proper PPE that strikes a balance between protecting employees from the hazards of their jobs and preventing heat stress.

“There are so many advances [in PPE] … that the PPE issue shouldn’t be so much a concern anymore,” Brinegar said, noting that hoods equipped with air blowers, camel bags or cooling coils are some of the most advanced types of PPE to consider.

Experts and companies with effectively instituted heat stress programs emphasize that with adequate preventative measures, proper education and adequate protection, the risk of heat stress could be eliminated.

Recognizing Heat Stress and Your Surroundings

Heat stress can be deadly. In 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 47 people working outdoors died from exposure to environmental heat and five died from contact with a hot object or substance.

There are three types of heat stress: heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. When heat cramps and heat exhaustion are not immediately treated and given adequate attention, the situation can escalate to heat stroke, which is a life-threatening illness with a high death rate. The signs and symptoms for each illness include:

  • Heat cramps: Muscle cramps in extremities (especially legs) and in abdomen.
  • Heat exhaustion: Dizziness; weakness; fainting; nausea; headache; cold, clammy skin; dry tongue; thirst.
  • Heat stroke: High body temperature, decreased level of consciousness, change in behavior, not sweating in a hot environment, red or pale skin, elevated heart rate and rapid breathing.

According to Loren Tapp, M.D., medical officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), heat-related illnesses can occur when employers and employees are not aware of the signs and symptoms of heat stress. Not only that, but they aren’t aware that workplace conditions also can place workers at risk.

In the petrochemical industry, many employees must work around metal and metal structures. As any child can tell you, leave a car sitting out in the sun for an hour – even if it is not particularly hot outside – and the hood of the car will be hot, hot, hot to the touch.

Robert “Mike” Arnold, president of Houston-based Proforma Safety, a safety consulting firm for the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, says workers often have to handle metal equipment, stand on steel decks and walk around steel structures in areas that heat up very quickly.

Arnold, who consults with companies throughout the Gulf Coast region, says heat and humidity – which can be close to unbearable while sitting on a porch swing in August – become a greater issue when employees are working around hot metal pipes and structures. He recommends that oil and gas and petrochemical companies implement safeguards such as installing insulation and barriers like wire mesh to protect workers from heat exposure burns.

Arnold also says he watches very closely when his clients’ drilling rigs are located in wooded areas. This can become a risky situation, he says, as tall trees can block the breeze and produce a work environment filled with stagnant, hot air.

“These are certainly areas and situations companies should be vigilant about,” Arnold says.

It Starts with Monitoring

Whenever employees work in hot environments, companies should have a heat management program in place, states Chad Dowell, an industrial hygienist at NIOSH. The first thing the program should have is a monitoring system that predicts how hot the environment will get by using a wet bulb thermometer, which measures the wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT).

“Use of WBGT is essential, because it allows you to measure not just the air temperature, but humidity in the air, radiant heat and wind velocity,” Dowell says.

Brinegar adds that it has been Kinder Morgan’s policy for many years to have a heat stress program that not only is vigilant about monitoring employees but also in educating them about the importance of protecting themselves from heat stress.

“We encourage employees to be self-driven,” he says. “We have a safety culture here in which you are accountable for your own safety and are empowered to take corrective measures throughout the day.” For instance, Brinegar says the company advises workers, if they are at a remote site, to take the initiative to stop at a local store to get some electrolyte fluids.

However, the company doesn’t let employees shoulder all responsibility for preventing heat stress. Brinegar says they use the wet bulb thermometer to determine the heat index, which can rise to a high level in the Houston area.

Brinegar says he finds that it isn’t necessarily outdoors where workers are most at risk of incurring heat stress, but inside oil tanks, buildings and in excavated ditches – where there is no air movement – and when employees have to do physical activities such as clearing the dirt underneath a pipeline, putting a new coat of paint on a pipe or walking through a site to perform an inspection.

But to avoid all risks, Kinder Morgan management also requires employees who often are exposed to hot environments to get special heat stress training every 3 years. In addition, during the summer months, managers discuss heat stress during their weekly safety meetings and provide workers with tents, other types of shade materials and industrial fans as needed. In some cases, workers can even have flexible schedules so that they can perform their most labor-intensive work early in the morning, when the sun isn’t at its peak.

“We do what we can to help accommodate and ensure the safety of our employees during the day,” Brinegar says.

Importance of Fluids and Breaks

Amalia Neidhardt, a senior safety engineer with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) has a pet peeve when it comes to companies that have had illnesses and fatalities as a result of heat stress. Neidhardt helped conduct a 2005 case study of Cal/OSHA’s heat-related investigations, which reported that out of the 25 heat illness cases, 50 percent resulted in fatalities with 96 percent of the victims dying of severe dehydration. What was most astonishing was that in 90 percent of the cases, water and other fluids were present at the work sites.

“The employer needs to do more than just provide water,” says Neidhardt. “They need to let workers know where they can access the water and make it company policy that [employees] are required to take breaks to drink water on a frequent basis.

She noted that if an employee is wearing a lot of PPE, it might make it more difficult for him or her remove the PPE to look for water. As a result, employees would rather finish the job before drinking, and will ignore the need to take frequent cooling breaks, because it means spending time taking PPE off or putting it back on. As evidenced by the study’s results, this could be a deadly mistake.

A lack of hydration isn’t the only problem. In a subsequent study, Neidhardt and other industrial hygienists looked at 38 Cal/OSHA 2006 investigations and found that among the group of workers who died from heat stroke, 63 percent had supervisors who not been trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illnesses, preventative measures or emergency response to a heat-related event.

In one “pretty sad” case at a chemical manufacturing company, Neidhardt recalls that a coworker of the employee who died of a heat stroke insisted on calling the supervisor before dialing 911. Neidhardt says this case demonstrates the importance of companies planning in advance and having emergency procedures in place so they don’t waste time. Only 33 percent of the companies she studied had emergency heat stress procedures in place.

“This tells me that most companies don’t know what to do,” she says, adding that having emergency procedures and training should go hand in hand.

A Good Plan of Action

At the Benicia, Calif.-based Valero refinery, not only does the company have emergency procedures for such a situation, but Valero has onsite EMT-qualified employees who are trained in medical response (from providing a Band-Aid to CPR). According to Dave Matthews, the Valero refinery’s certified industrial hygienist, the facility is staffed with EMT-qualified employees on site 24 hours a day.

In addition, the facility has an internal emergency number, which rings to a special phone in an area that is staffed 24/7 as well. Emergencies also can be called in via a facility radio. Matthews asserts that having onsite emergency services is helpful when tending to all types of situation, including heat stress.

“Response time is much faster than it is via 911,” he says.

In addition to having a well-coordinated, onsite emergency response team, Valero uses education to address the problems of heat stress. Terry Schulte, the refinery’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) coordinator, says that during the company’s safety training sessions on heat stress, they educate workers on recognizing the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and teach them what to do when it happens.

“We really try to be proactive by telling workers, every 15-20 minutes, take a drink of water; every 45 minutes, get into shade,” says Schulte. “Even if you don’t think you need it, do it anyway, just to be on safe side.”

The company also has a documented work procedure that informs workers what to do if the outdoor temperature goes past 90 degrees while they’re wearing normal work clothes or if the temperature exceeds 70 degrees if they have additional PPE on.

If the temperature is between 90-100 degrees, the company mandates that workers document their work/rest schedule, including how much water they drink and how many breaks they take. When the temperatures get into the 100-110 degree range, management implements rotations where each person works in 15-minute intervals. Past the 110-degree mark, management may not let workers perform certain labor-intensive tasks. Days with temperatures beyond 110 degrees are rare, says Schulte.

Neidhardt describes Valero as the poster child of the petrochemical industry and the company has an OSHA VPP star to prove its commitment to safe work. As with any type of workplace hazard, Schulte says Valero’s managers take heat stress prevention very seriously. He adds that every company in any industry where there is a chance of heat stress exposure should do the same.

“We like to err on the side of safety,” Schulte says.

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