Clarion Masthead

Hot at Work? Don’t Sweat It Out: Taking Action on Summer Temps

Uncontrolled indoor temperatures are a “tremendous problem,” across CUNY, said Jean Grassman, PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs co-chair and associate professor of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College. Overheated classrooms, labs and other work spaces are common because of the university’s aging infrastructure. The heat can threaten the health of faculty, students and staff, Grassman emphasized, so it’s important to speak up right away.

Year-Round Problem

“Sometimes people have hot offices and classrooms all winter long, because it’s not just about the weather, it’s about climate control,” Grassman explained. But at any time of year, too-hot spaces pose real risks, including heat exhaustion and potential indoor air-quality concerns.

The most serious risk is heat exhaustion, which can lead to heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is often characterized by heavy sweating, a racing pulse, dizziness and/or nausea. It’s of particular concern for people with cardiovascular conditions, Grassman said, but can afflict anyone, especially when moving around in a hot environment. “Instructors are generally pretty active in front of the class,” she noted. “Heat exhaustion is something to take seriously.”

Last summer’s long heat wave created problems all over CUNY, Grassman said, and though this summer’s weather has been relatively cool so far, she does expect more difficulties during July and August. Last year, when the air conditioning quit in a trailer where Research Foundation employees at Kingsborough Community College worked, “it was an emergency,” Grassman told Clarion. “Those people had to get out of that trailer. Fans would not do it.”

Special problems can result from the combination of hot spaces and chemicals, including those used in cleaning, painting or in science labs. “At Brooklyn College, we just had a problem with waxing the floors,” Grassman said. The heat makes volatile chemicals more so, and can intensify their effects, which can include dizziness, nausea, headache and even collapse.

“Years ago at Brooklyn College we had un-air-conditioned anatomy labs,” Grassman recalled. “People were having a lot of problems with the fixative for the tissues. The formalin was evaporating because it was so hot. We had some students faint.” While that problem was subsequently fixed, she said, labs without AC may exist at other campuses.

How Hot Is Too Hot?

The industry standard for acceptable indoor temperatures for our high-humidity climate ranges from 72.5 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). If your classroom, lab or office feels too hot, here’s what to do:

Contact the facilities department on your campus: “A lot of campuses say to file a work order, but that’s not enough because it can take a long time,” Grassman said. “Excessive heat is a safety concern and needs prompt attention.” Talking directly with a responsible administrator is often important to getting the problem solved.

You should also report the problem to your chapter chair or to a member of the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs on your campus. (Chapter chairs are listed here.)

If that doesn’t get a resolution within two days, contact the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs at 212-354-1252 x208, or email hswatchdogs@pscmail.org.

“Don’t soldier it out,” Grassman said. “Speed is of the essence.” The Watchdogs are experienced at getting action.

Measure the temperature: The PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs can provide thermometers and temperature logs upon request. (See contact info above.)

Consider moving: “If the temperature is into the 80s, consider moving to a different space,” Grassman said. “That’s something we can help people with.”

Aging Infrastructure

Temperature problems across CUNY are mainly due to infrastructure challenges – old buildings and insufficient system upkeep. “Generally, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems aren’t well maintained at CUNY,” she said. In older buildings without integrated HVAC systems, colleges depend on individual air conditioners for cooling, which can be unreliable.

Buildings that do have HVAC systems sometimes have over-air-conditioned spaces. “We’ve seen that at John Jay, [where] they can overdo it and it will get pretty frosty,” Grassman told Clarion.

Sometimes, especially in spaces with HVAC systems, fixing the problem can mean something as quick as “a small adjustment.” In cases where the root of the problem is more systemic, the Health and Safety Watchdogs can help members and chapter leaders organize to secure a lasting solution, while also insisting on immediate relief.