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Robert Barron column: Working in the heat can take a toll

Robert’s column

It’s hard to work at labour jobs outdoors in the middle of a heat wave.

Many mornings during this particularly hot summer as I made my way from my car to the office, I found the heat already almost unbearable even before 9 a.m., and it just got worse as the day progressed.

I’m grateful that I work mostly in an air-conditioned office away from glare of the sun, which can feel like someone stuck you in a microwave oven at times.

Years ago, I used to visit outdoor job sites, like roofing jobs that use hot tar and paving projects using hot asphalt, during the hottest days of summer to talk to the workers on how they cope with the heat for human interest stories I was working on.

Some of these projects would shut down for the duration of heat waves to avoid the possibility that the workers could get heat stroke, or worse, but some were on deadline and so the poor workers had to endure it as best they could.

I remember getting a little woozy myself as I stood next to workers spreading hot asphalt around on driveways with shovels and wheelbarrows on days when the temperatures would hit the mid to high 30s.

The workers would say that one way to deal with the heat was to stay well hydrated and have a small towel that was kept constantly wet and cool on their heads under their work helmets.

But I also heard stories from some of these heat veterans about workers collapsing and having to be treated by the company’s first-aid attendants, with some even having to be taken to hospital.

It’s not easy dealing with the heat while you’re working, and I know that from personal experience.

In the late 1990s, I worked outdoors alongside my brother Paul at a concrete plant near Nanaimo airport.

We made highway curbs and mediums and our job was to fix any minor faults with them with cement in a large paved yard next to the plant after they were taken from their moulds and brought out to us on forklifts.

There was no covering over the yard, so we were constantly exposed to the elements throughout the year, including the winter months when we’d be often wet, cold and miserable.

But the summer months were worse because, like the roofers and pavers, we had no way to escape the sun while we patched and repaired newly made and hot curbs and mediums.

The one advantage we had, however, was that we were close to the cool Nanaimo River and during our 40-minute lunch break, we would head quickly to my car instead of the lunch room (who could eat in the heat?) and drive to the river for a swim to cool down as fast as we could before we had to go back to work.

In the beginning, we had no idea where the popular swimming holes on the river were, so we would just pull up to the river on the side of the road and try to find somewhere to get in as quickly as possible.

A couple of times, we couldn’t find easy access, so we’d find a long branch on the shore and we’d take turns holding onto an end of the branch while the other would cling desperately to it in the fast-moving water.

It was pretty risky I suppose, but we didn’t see that we had a choice if we wanted to survive the afternoon heat in the plant’s yard. Eventually, we did discover some safer access points on the river that were close to the plant, so we no longer had to risk being swept out to sea as we tried to escape the heat.

It seems everyone who works outdoors have devised ways to deal with the dog days of summer.

I’m just glad that my days of having to work hard under the hot sun are way behind me.

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Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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