Measures Aim to Reduce Risks for Workers, Soldiers
By James Gilbert / Yuma Sun / 24 Aug 2018
The work TRAX employees do — testing military equipment at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground — is inherently dangerous. Making it even more dangerous at times is having to do it outdoors during the summer under a scorching sun, for hours a day in blistering heat.
Excessive heat and sun exposure pose significant dangers, such as sunburn, dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, all of which Lead Engineer Technician Tom Counts must take into consideration every day for the safety of his crew.
Counts, who is involved in testing Bradley Fighting Vehicles, described being inside one during a summer test to spending the day inside one of those tin storage sheds often seen in people’s back yards.
“They don’t have air conditioning. They aren’t made to be nice, cool and comfortable,” Counts said. “If you run with the hatches open you get an air flow, but a lot of dirt comes in. But if you close the hatch, you get less dirt, but more heat.”
Counts said on any given test they can spend between six or seven hours of their 10-hour shift inside a vehicle, and that internal temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees at times. On top of that, depending on the type of test, they will have to wear the same gear as soldiers do.
“We take breaks and drink water as often as possible while the vehicle isn’t moving,” Counts said. “You do what you have to do, but the mission has to be done.”
Chief Wayne Schilders, head of YPG’s weapons operations division, explained that despite the extreme summer temperatures, YPG still has mission that has to be done, so control measures designed to mitigate the heat are put into place when temperatures are hot.
Some of the control measures include adjusting the work/rest schedules — based the level of physical exertion — to allow workers time to recover, setting up temporary shade when working in open fields or areas without easy access to shade or air conditioning, or scheduling the work to allow for earlier start times, or evening and night shifts.
Another measure is assigning more employees to the physically demanding tests so they can share more of the work load, or be rotated out more frequently.
“The weather does not stop us from doing even the worst case mission we do,” Schilders said. “We don’t slow down just because it gets hot.”
Other precautions, according to TRAX Safety and Quality Assurance Manager Jaysen Lockett, include providing employees with personnel cooling measures such as cooling towels and soak-able hats. Each crew is also given at least one five-gallon water, which can be filled at any one of the water and ice stations throughout the installation and flavor packets to put in water containing electrolytes.
“It is important to allow your body to cool down and regulate itself before continuing further work,” Lockett said. “Staying hydrated is also important to keep all your body functions running smoothly.”
Heat safety information is also made available to employees through newsletters, emails, safety briefings held at job sites before work begins and pocket guides that contain information on fluid intake.
Employees are encouraged to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants for full body protection. They should also wear sunscreen and a hat with a wide brim, or a shade cap with fabric that drapes from the sides and back and covers the neck.
A buddy system has also been set up in which employees watch for symptoms of heat-related illness in each other. Lockett said that often a worker will not recognize their own signs and symptoms.
Ultimately, what it comes down to, according to YPG Director of Safety Michael Demcko, is creating a culture of safety that both the U.S. Army and TRAX employees have bought into, which is something they have been very successful at doing.
Demcko said while training and education is constant and ongoing throughout the year, it all begins with Safety Awareness Week, which is held every February, and not just limited to heat-related illnesses.
“That is really when we start off our hot weather training to get the workers prepared for the hotter days to come,” Demcko said.
For example, in 2011, which was YPG’s busiest year on record with 2.8 million direct labor hours — a million more than the previous year — TRAX had 21 heat-related illnesses, two of which required hospitalization. In the years since, TRAX has not had any reportable missed work due to heat-related illnesses, according to Demcko.
Demcko added that YPG has a meteorologist on staff who publishes a weather forecast each morning, which is then dispersed to all departments before work starts via email, radio and other forms of communication.
“That information also gets updated throughout the day, along with every time the heat index goes up,” Demcko said.
Another concern, according to Shilders, is visitors. He explained that most of YPG’s upper command is stationed on the East Coast, so when they come to the installation they aren’t used to the heat. They need time to become acclimated to the temperatures.
That is also often the case for representatives from companies doing tests at YPG and many of TRAX’s new employees.
(TRAX Editor’s Note: “Trax” has been corrected to “TRAX” in all instances in the above previously printed article.)