Public works departments endure summer heat
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Recently, scientists officially pronounced July 2019 as the warmest month every recorded in the history of weather record-keeping. It hit 101.7 degrees in Cambridge, England, and 108.7 in Paris, and in Chester County, everywhere from West Chester to Oxford slow-basted underneath a broiling sun.
As temperature forecasts predicted the thermometer to register in the high 90s, Chester County officials issued a Code Red alert for extreme heat, signaling that certain procedures are put in place when the daytime temperatures reach 95 degrees by 11 a.m. on two consecutive days, or when temperatures reach 100 degrees on any given day.
During the early-morning hours of July 22 – a Code Red day – a three-and-a-half foot wide tree came down across Bucktoe Road in New Garden Township, that took with it all of the power lines in the immediate vicinity. Ken Reed, the township’s Public Works director, notified PECO of the fallen tree, and during the day, Asplundh employees worked through the heat to remove limbs from the road, in order to free up traffic.
When the morning turned into the afternoon, Reed noticed that while Asplundh was making progress on removing the tree, it wasn’t fast enough. His six-member staff had battled through the same heat the week before – sealing and black-topping roads all over the township – but they quickly responded to Reed’s call and soon arrived at the scene with the appropriate equipment.
By the late afternoon, the tree had been complete removed, the traffic flowed again along Bucktoe Road, and power was eventually restored to neighbors.
The heat index, Reed noticed, registered one hundred and seventeen degrees.
“It was brutal,” said Reed said, who has been a member of the department since 2008. “We’ve had to postpone work in the past knowing that it will be hot, but there have been hotter days that we couldn’t reschedule, so we’ve just sucked it up and gotten the job done.”
While most of southern Chester County has sought relief from the soaring temperatures in air-conditioned homes and vehicles this summer, the public works employees at local municipalities have served as a sun-burned band of warriors, enduring day after day of nearly unbearable weather conditions that have included long stretches where temperatures have eclipsed the 100-degree mark. In London Grove Township, Public Works Director Shane Kinsey’s staff have replaced culvert pipes on Sullivan Road in preparation for paving, as well as paved trails in Goddard Park, as part of PECO’s Growing Greener Grant.
In New Garden Township, Reed has worked with his six-member team to replace and realign 400 feet of pipe in a township development and provide blacktop repair to several township roads. In Kennett Township, Roadmaster Roger Lysle’s five-person staff have done repair and blacktop paving on West Hillendale and Chandler Mill roads, as well as restored faulty road banks.
While their work schedules may differ, the philosophy of how to best compensate for the heat is exactly the same: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
At New Garden, every Public Works member brings his own insulted thermos cooler to every job, and the department provides a five-gallon container of water, topped off with ice, for the department to consume all day. Reed said that in order to best keep his staff out of the most intense heat of the summer, his department’s hours of operation begin at 6 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“There have been times in the past when it’s been so extremely that we have actually begun work at 4:30 or 5 a.m., which allows us to finish by lunchtime,” he said.
“We follow all of the safety precautions for our staff,” said Lysle, whose department runs a 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. summer schedule. “Water and Gatorade are always packed for every job. We keep wet rags for guys to use on their necks, and all vehicles are air conditioned.
“We tell all of our guys that if they’re feeling the heat, they have to remember that they’re a part of a team, so if they need to take the time to get cooled down, we tell them all to take the time they need.”
In London Grove Township, Kinsey allows his team to wear shorts when certain projects allow them to, promotes the use of sunscreen and wide-brim hats, and provides canopies and umbrellas at every site, in order to help keep equipment cooler.
“Hydration is one of our big concerns,” said Kinsey, whose department utilizes a four-day work week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “At our shop we have an ice machine and we provide coolers and water bottles for field use. We also have urine color charts mounted in all restrooms as a reminder to staff of the importance of hydration. Staff also purchases ice pops and keeps them in the freezer for a refreshing cool down at the end of the day.”
Due to the need for having its staff on call on during the winter to help remove snow and ice in New Garden Township, Reed said that vacation time for his department is largely confined to the summer months. Yet, the increased number of road projects in the township has prevented some of the staff from being able to carry over their vacation time from last year.
“I don’t know if there’s a paycheck this summer that has not registered overtime work, just because there has so much for us to do,” Reed said. “We’re here day in and day out. We do anything and everything that comes in, whether it’s repair a stop sign that’s fallen down, remove a downed tree that’s come down during a thunderstorm. We’re always here and always ready to do what needs to be done.”
Reed, Lysle and Kinsey do not just sit in their air-conditioned offices issuing work orders, but often climb aboard machines themselves in an effort to get the work done, so each knows first-hand what the intense heat can do. A few years ago, Lysle was working with his crew to install a post-and-rail fence at the intersection of Bayard and Hillendale roads. Over time, the heat became so intense that he took refuge in a nearby work vehicle with a bottle of water.
“You get to a point where you’re almost nauseous and then you realize that you have to get out of the heat,” he said. “Even if you are drinking water, some days the heat of the blacktop is almost unbearable. No one in our department has ever had an incident based on heat related issues, but we've had moments when we've told each other, 'Hey, I've had enough.’”
Every so often during the hottest summer days, Lyle said, the Kennett Township Public Works Department will look up from the steaming residue of sealant or blacktop they are working with, and notice cars that have stopped near the project. Suddenly, the windows of the cars will roll down, and from each car, a hand will emerge, offering them a six-pack of water or Gatorade, and along with it, a gracious “Thank you.”
“We have always had, like other townships, a minimal amount of employees to do a maximum amount of work,” said Lysle, who has been with the department for 38 years. “Once you've been here a while, you begin to take pride in your work, and the township becomes an extension of your own back yard. For all of my employees, our belief is 'Public first.' We have a great rapport with our public, and they think highly of their road crew.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.