high temperature dog builders; “This heat is different”

In the summer heat, construction worker Roberto Puente Garcia drinks about 10 to 15 bottles of water during a shift. Sometimes the 71-year-old manages a 40-pack with his two colleagues between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., sometimes even more.

Today Garcia cleaned four bottles by 11am. He crushes the empties and slips them into his work harness, a belt that weighs almost 30 pounds when loaded with construction equipment. It’s 94 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. The high will be 103 degrees, but it will most likely feel even hotter.

He and his colleague Rigo Gotierrez are paving a terrace behind a client’s house. The work is steady, and the men are meticulous, driving wooden stakes into the ground and drilling support beams before they even pour the liquid concrete. Garcia has worked for Cowboy Foundation and Construction since 1998, Gotierrez for 17 years. They’re used to the work, the sun, and all the bottled water, but this summer, men know something is different.

It’s the heat.

As temperatures soared to historic highs and drought dragged on for months this summer, occupations such as construction workers, farmers and other outdoor workers toiled in the unrelenting heat without respite. Summer heat, which is not uncommon in San Antonio, is getting worse, climate experts say, and long periods of high temperatures are on the horizon. As development and construction increases, more workers may suffer from the harsh weather.

This summer could be a clue as to what’s in store for the city and the health of its outdoor workers, and for some, that means the heat and life in San Antonio is a needed debate. However, it is a daily consideration for Garcia and Gotierrez. Questions like how much water to take, what to wear, and whether there will be shade even after years of work run through their minds. No matter what, the heat is always there.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s hot,” Gotierrez said. “We will work unless it rains.”

heat on the horizon

Earlier this year, District 7 councilor Ana Sandoval suggested that the city finally have a discussion about heat and construction. She cited both San Antonio’s booming development and the future of the climate crisis as reasons to act now. Record high temperatures are not a one-time thing, Sandoval said. They will extend beyond summer into fall.

“We have extremely responsible employers and contractors here in San Antonio, but they have not dealt with this type of heat that we are experiencing now,” she said. “I think it’s important to develop some recommendations and best practices for the city.”

The councilor wants to see a meeting with construction workers and managers, occupational health professionals and others to determine how the city can adapt. Ultimately, the final decision would be implemented for the coming summers and – with any luck – the number of heat-related illnesses and painful working conditions would be reduced.

Temperatures this summer reached a heat index of 110 to 112 degrees on some days, heating sidewalks and other impervious coverings and keeping temperatures high throughout the night. The heat was over 100 degrees for almost 50 days. Now, at the end of August, temperatures have finally dropped into the 90’s. However, autumn is still a while away.

Evelyn Gutierrez, executive director of emergency services at Texas Vista Medical Center, said the team saw a significant proportion of patients suffering from heat-related illnesses while working outdoors this summer. People come to the unit when they are feeling weak, have a headache, or are sweating profusely from heat exhaustion. In more extreme cases, people experience confusion or delirium, or they stop sweating completely, which means the patient has suffered heat stroke.

In one instance, a construction worker was brought in by his colleagues, drenched in sweat and passed out. During a break, the man was napping in a confined area of ​​the site, and his team found him there an hour later, slumped and confused.

“He was pretty much in a hot box,” Gutierrez said. “When we finally got to him, it was like he jumped into the river to go swimming.”

In other circumstances, people come to the hospital with dizziness or dehydration. Many people who are in the heat all day may not even notice the slow decline toward heat exhaustion because they feel they are used to the heat, or take it lightly by drinking less water or work beyond breaks. Workers might think they’ve acclimated to the heat after working in it every day, but that doesn’t mean your body isn’t at risk.

“Anatomically and psychologically, every body reacts the same way,” she said. “There is no increased tolerance to heat when your body system is responding to it. You might think because you’re from the south, you’re better off. That does not exist.”

The role of the employer

In some cases, however, employers do not provide workers with everything they need to combat the heat. Sandoval said she’s heard from workers not drinking water because there are no on-site restrooms or there isn’t enough water for workers to drink during a shift. For some workers, there aren’t many breaks, or taking a day off because of the heat will have repercussions.

Mike Lozano, the owner of Cowboy Foundation and Construction, said he’s doing what he can to warn workers about the heat every day. He sends them a message in the morning before their shift and understands when a worker needs to take a day off because of it.

Seniors or those with pre-existing medical conditions may be more prone to heat-related illnesses. The higher the temperature, the higher the risk.

For Lozano, he said it would be nice if the city helped workers with proper clothing, such as long-sleeved, moisture-wicking shirts, hats, and cooling clothing, as well as water. It already provides its workers with clothing for extreme temperatures, he said, but because of the rigors of the construction work, it would be nice if workers could get a discount for more clothing or if the city could incentivize companies to provide heat-resistant equipment. Typically, construction workers wear face masks, hats, long-sleeved shirts, and pants to protect themselves from the sun.

“Many of my employees have been doing this for a long time,” Lozano said. “But this heat is different. It’s not something we’re all used to.”

Construction workers employed by the city are given cooling clothing and face masks when they’re on the job, such as as part of the city’s five-year rolling infrastructure maintenance program to repair roads. The building authority responsible for such construction projects has safety guidelines for extreme weather, be it hot or cold, and provides an aid station, water and energy drinks for the crew.

The site manager instructs the team to look out for each other and report if anyone faints or looks ill.

“When you work out there, there’s not much difference between 95 and 105. It’s hot, so take precautions because you know the heat is coming,” said Paul Berry, public information officer for Public Works. “We’re going to talk to our managers and say, ‘Hey, make sure your guys know they need to take care of themselves, take breaks, drink and make sure everything is prepared.’”

Still, city employees have experienced heat-related illnesses on the job. Joel Elizondo, a worker on the infrastructure maintenance team, said a few years ago someone at work collapsed because of the heat. They ran back to him and helped him cool down under a tree with some water. And this summer has felt even hotter, Elizondo said. The team just needs to drink plenty of water and find shade when they can.

“All of this falls under climate adaptation,” Sandoval said. “Climate action reduces greenhouse gases or removes (those gases) from the atmosphere, but adaptation is our way of functioning in a world that has this unpredictable climate. To a certain extent we can predict that we will have very hot summers, right? This isn’t great news, but it’s something that’s predictable here. So how do we prepare for that?”

For Garcia and Gotierrez, the decisions were made closer to home. Running out of water bottles, working in a place with no shade, forgetting a hat or sunglasses can be anything for them. At least this particular job has a back porch to sit and eat lunch on.

Garcia’s wife packed him tacos today. She cooks at night because they only have one window unit at home and the kitchen is unbearable during the day this summer.

“There’s nothing we can do about the heat,” Garcia said. “So why worry? It is our job.”

Elena Bruess writes for Express-News on Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. ReportforAmerica.org. [email protected]

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