Mike Allen makes a living 20 feet below the city streets, where it's dark and hot. On a day like today, when the thermometer is expected to creep into the upper 90s, it's close to 150 degrees underground and Allen is clad in thick pants, a long-sleeve shirt and boots.
A cable splicer working outdoors in the District, Allen spends much of his 12-hour workday in sweat-drenched clothes. He keeps himself hydrated with "cool thoughts and lots of water" and completes the tasks "as quickly and safely as possible so I can just get back up." Back up on the street, the 90-degree heat really does feel cool to Allen as he lifts himself from the manhole.
In this Washington summer that has seen the second-worst drought since the Great Depression and the second-hottest summer months on record, the thousands of people who must work outside--from construction employees to postal workers--must also find a way to keep cool.
"It's really just at this time of the year that it takes a lot out of you and sometimes I don't know how to deal with it," Allen said. "But you have to just keep going."
Sometimes heat and the workplace don't mix. But employers are working on it. One example of that, said John Challenger, workplace expert with Chicago-based firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, was the reaction to caddies' protest last month that they were being forced to wear long pants and heavy shirts while out in the midday heat carrying heavy golf bags: "The PGA actually changed their rules, even though people there are just so traditional. You can wear shorts now."
Certainly many other employers also have workers in conditions where they are not protected from the heat, he said. And employers need to take steps to make those working environments safe. The construction industry, for example, is desperate for skilled workers.
"You can have your choice of different jobs because skills are in great demand. It's driving change, forcing employers to make their workplace more friendly, a better environment to work at," Challenger said.
While the heat exacts a lesser toll on office workers, even those workplaces are trying to accommodate. "There are a lot more not just casual Fridays, but . . . casual summer," said Tom Morris, president of the District-based workplace consulting firm Morris Associates. "I think people are learning how to dress more appropriately with these casual rules. Men can leave their jackets at home." Workers are able to wear cooler clothes without looking unprofessional.
Still, the workers hit hardest by the heat are those forced to be out in it, yet many are sanguine about conditions.
Lars Graham sweeps streets, picks up trash and helps tourists in his role as an ambassador for the Golden Triangle, a business improvement district in downtown Washington.
"I'm just having fun," he said. "I drink plenty of fluids and don't ever feel sick."
For others, working outdoors is not anything to lament.
"I don't have a choice. It's my job, so what can I do?" asks Mohammad Y. Ranjbar, a street vendor selling everything from cold water to apples to chewing gum for 11 hours a day. "Heat is heat. But I'm doing okay. I have juices and stuff."
Bike messengers have to deal with heat, exercise and smog--a potentially dangerous combination.
Eric Barnes delivers about 10 to 12 packages a day and clocks about 200 miles a week. The highlight of his day: bringing packages into air-conditioned office buildings.
"You run around all day and then go inside for a couple of minutes and cool off, and then go back outside," he said. "The sweat dries and it's like having your own [air conditioning] when you start riding again."
And then there are the employers who provide their employees with a midsummer treat. Workplace consultant Morris, who should know something about keeping workers happy, after all, bought ice cream sodas for everyone in his office yesterday. "It's just good for morale," he said.
KEEPING COOL AND SAFE
Heat can promote accidents (from slipperiness of sweaty palms, dizziness, etc.) and lower mental alertness, among other problems. Some recommendations for avoiding heat stress, from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:
* Workers unused to a hot environment should gradually expose themselves to heat.
* During intense heat, making the job easier or reducing its duration should be considered. Whenever possible, workers should be allowed to incorporate work-rest cycles; providing cool rest areas also helps.
* Engineering controls such as ventilation and heat shielding should be used when possible.
* Workers should drink five to seven ounces of liquid every 15 to 20 minutes to replenish body fluids.
* Workers should wear the proper type of clothing. This may include insulated gloves and suits, reflective clothing, or infrared reflecting face shields. For extremely hot conditions, thermally conditioned clothing may be appropriate.
* For more information, see NIOSH's Web site at www.cdc.gov/niosh.
CAPTION: Melvin Koonce goes underground for Pepco, but conditions below the streets can resemble those in an oven.
CAPTION: Construction workers Alvin Cannon and Ismael E. Jimenez prepare to drill, and bake. Lack of skilled help is forcing change in their industry, one expert said.