July 7, 2023
For many Starkville Utilities employees, working outdoors is part of the job in providing reliable water, wastewater and electrical services for customers. With Mississippi’s heat index well into the triple digits, summertime safety precautions are a top priority.
“An important aspect of safety awareness is knowing how to protect yourself and others during extreme weather conditions,” said Edward Kemp, general manager of Starkville Utilities. “As temperatures continue to climb, we’re making sure employees stay focused on working safely and returning home healthy at the end of every workday.”
Hydration is key in preventing heat illness. Employees are fully stocked with water, ice and drinks containing electrolytes and nutrients for rapid hydration. During safety meetings, crews review tips for recognizing signs of heat stress, heat stroke and other hot-weather threats. Based on weather conditions, employees are required to take breaks in air-conditioned service vehicles or nearby work facilities while replenishing fluids.
“When you’re working in a bucket, it can get pretty heated up there, and we’re also wearing long-sleeve, flame-resistant shirts and rubber gloves,” said Kaleb “Kubby” Harris, apprentice lineman II. “We have a chart that tells you how high the heat index is based on the temperature and how long you can work outside before taking a break. Our foreman does a good job of following the chart and making sure we protect ourselves.”
Looking out for one another is a central tenet of Starkville Utilities’ safety culture. Employees are vigilant about their own health and that of their coworkers. In the event of emergencies, they’re trained to administer first aid and CPR and call 911.
“You can tell if someone is getting too hot—they turn red in the cheeks and stop sweating,” Harris said. “We’re good at observing each other, and before every job we fill out a hazard analysis that includes weather conditions. We check the weather before every job.”
Starkville Utilities’ chief wastewater operator Thomas Ware agrees.
“The main thing is to hydrate and listen to your body,” he said. “At least 90% of our work is outside, and in the summer, we really emphasize training about heat stroke and stress.”
The wastewater division is responsible for operating systems that process around 10 million gallons of domestic wastewater every day. Crews routinely perform preventive maintenance tasks on a broad array of equipment, including 22 pumping stations throughout Starkville, in addition to mowing and bushhogging areas near their facilities.
Dangerous heat is just one of many seasonal threats, Ware noted.
“Whenever we cut grass in remote pump stations, we’re on the lookout for snakes,” he said. “We also come across snakes in wet wells and pump buildings. If we’re working on an electrical panel that hasn’t been opened in a while, there’s often a wasp nest inside.”
Ensuring that customers have safe drinking water whenever they turn on their taps also requires employees to be exposed to the elements. As part of their everyday routines, water division employees operate heavy machinery such as excavators, repair pipes and equipment and respond to service calls, including after-hours emergencies.
“When it’s hot, we make sure our coolers are full of water and iced down and we stay hydrated throughout the day,” said Shunderick Burchfield, operator. “We take breaks in the truck to cool off, and we rotate as the day goes on. We also deal with wasps, spiders, ant beds, mosquitoes and snakes. There are many things we do and many things we have to look out for.”
On top of working safely every day, many employees in the electrical, water and wastewater divisions must earn licenses and certifications to perform their jobs. Utility employees are among the most highly trained and credentialed of any industry and provide services that are essential to their communities’ standard of living and quality of life.
“We’re held to a high standard,” Harris said. “It’s hard work, and not many people can do it. Whenever we’re on a job or restoring service after a storm, we’re doing our best to get everything done as safely and as quickly as possible. Safety is always first.”
Starkville Utilities is a public utility serving 14,000 residences, businesses and industries in Starkville, Mississippi as well as Mississippi State University. Its mission is to supply safe, reliable, and cost-effective electric and water service of superior quality and value that improves the lives of its customers.