Workers swelter in B.C.'s hottest jobs as heat dome blasts province
How kitchen staff, construction workers and others are coping while exposed to extreme temperatures
The heat blanketing B.C. has seen people scrambling to buys fans and air conditioning units, cracking open windows and lowering blinds in an often futile attempt to keep homes cool.
But many people are especially feeling the heat in the workplace.
On Monday, WorkSafeBC advised employers to consider closing workplaces if staff could not be protected from the risk of heat stress.
Construction sites, factories and restaurant kitchens shut down or offered reduced hours for the safety of staff as temperatures climbed above 40 C in many areas of the province.
But for the most essential workers, sheltering from the heat isn't an option.
Daniel Boulier, who works as a cook in a retirement residence, said he's accustomed to the heat of an industrial kitchen. But with three ovens and a steam table running in temperatures in the high 30s, Boulier said work becomes brutal.
"It's been hard. I will admit that focus is not there — you're drinking water like crazy. You're eating more food, too, just to keep up all the energy that you're burning, and you're just sweating like crazy," he said.
"I've travelled the world and I've never experienced temperatures like this before."
Boulier works alongside another cook, a dishwasher and five servers, and wears a short-sleeved chef's jacket, long pants and shoes, as well as a mask. He and his co-workers try to seek refuge in the walk-in freezer when they can, he said, and they've adjusted the menu for retirees to include lighter foods, including more salads and fresh fruit.
As many people head to air-conditioned restaurants to avoid turning on their ovens, he hopes they'll remember the people who don't have that luxury, he said.
"Have a little patience, is what I say. They're sweating back there, quite literally. They're working their tails off to make sure you're happy and comfortable," he said.
There's little relief to be had for those working on the sidewalks and streets.
Alexander Meikle works as a flagger on construction sites across Vancouver Island. He worked every day last week, with each day getting progressively hotter. On Monday, crews were sent home as temperatures peaked.
Meikle said it's nearly impossible to not overheat, especially when working in full protective gear on sweltering highways with no proximity to shade.
"There's no way you can have enough water to last you the day. Work regulations say we have to wear masks and our full gear, so there's no way we can win in this heat," he said.
"The one thing that people never realize is our hard hats we have to wear — they are essentially a greenhouse on your head. You can take it off some days and your hair is just dripping, it's wet with sweat. I throw ice cubes in my hard hat but they're gone in like two minutes."
In the extreme heat, members from other crews have offered to help so some workers can take a break, Meikle said.
"The one thing that's been great in the last week or so is flaggers helping flaggers. Sometimes someone from a totally different company will stop and say, 'Do you want water? Do you want to go to the washroom? I'll stay here for you,'" he said.
The control mechanic
Control mechanic Ian King is urging everyone working in the heat to use extreme caution.
King flies to remote parts of B.C. to upgrade communications, control and metering systems that keep power plants in Alberta running. The job has to be done in extreme heat or extreme cold, and involves operating heavy machinery while wearing fire resistant coveralls.
"You don't want people getting dizzy or passing out, especially when they're working with heavy machinery or working with heights. I am working with one other guy all the time and we're both just packing literally a gallon of water every time we're dropped off for two-hour jobs," he said.
"We've got to stay cautious. We're used to working in –30 C so we can probably learn how to work in plus 35 C or plus 40 C; although just like at –30 C it's going to be at a slower pace because none of the stuff we work with works that well in those conditions."
According to WorkSafeBC, symptoms of heat exhaustion include excess sweating, dizziness, fainting and muscle cramps. Symptoms of heat stroke, an increased breathing rate, confusion, seizures, a stop in sweating and cardiac arrest.
Risk can be reduced by limiting exposure to the sun wherever possible, drinking lots of water, wearing the right clothes, and taking rest breaks in cool, well-ventilated areas.