Too hot to work
May 21, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

So, for the nth year in a row the air conditioning system in our office is busted. It's not even summer yet and it's already way too hot in here. I need some way of keeping cool and sane.

There is currently no ventilation in the building, as they're repairing the air handlers. The chiller (replaced last year after it was struck by lightning) is apparently broken again. We were supposed to get the HVAC turned back on two weeks ago, but that deadline came and went. Today the outside air temperature was around 70F and it's currently over 85F in here. I spent most of last summer suffering from heat exhaustion and falling asleep at my desk; I need a better solution this year.

Things I have control over:
-Stuff that is inside my cubicle, including computer, monitor, and desk lighting.
-Clothing, up to a point. Short-sleeve shirts ok, shorts generally not. We were given special dispensation last year to dress down because of the heat.
-Food and water intake.
-Where I work, up to a point. Boss supports working from home on extreme days, but considering it's not even the end of May and it's already too hot I can't really spend all summer at home.

Things I cannot control:
-I have no window, so shades or opening a window don't apply.
-General lighting.
-Bathrooms are frequently out of paper products, so (for example) grabbing lots of wet paper towels to sponge off would be looked down on.
-Management. I am co-located at a customer's site with several coworkers from my own company; our company management is aware of the issue but there isn't room or desire to relocate us somewhere else.

Due to sequester issues and the general military culture (e.g., suck it up and deal) there aren't really any options available through the chain of command here. They know about the problems but short of condemning the building until the AC is restored I'm not sure what they can do.

How do I keep cool this summer? We haven't had many hot days yet and it's already too much. Tomorrow is supposed to be significantly warmer than today and I'm worried I'm just going to melt in to a puddle.

(Second question - is this in any way an OSHA violation? Is a military installation exempt from OSHA regs?)
posted by backseatpilot to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Small fan.
posted by lathrop at 1:20 PM on May 21, 2013

Response by poster: I also forgot to mention that, while fans are ok, anything that draws a lot of power is a no-no. We're not allowed to plug anything into our cubicle outlets that have a high draw (so, small fridge would be out).
posted by backseatpilot at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2013

Hell, why not a LARGE fan? In my old office the heater was too powerful, so it was sweltering inside all winter long, and everyone had fans at their desks. (And for summer, small space heaters to combat the a/c.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:23 PM on May 21, 2013

Gel ice packs? Get 2 or 3 of them to keep in the freezer, and grab one at a time to put like... in the small of your back? Under your your shirt? On the back of your neck? Wherever works to keep you cool. Rotate out as needed.

If using wet paper towels is something that works for you, then bring in your own paper towels to use for this.

And get a fan.

Are the windows openable, even if you're not near them? You may be able to talk people into getting circulation through the office at least, which a few open windows and some strategically placed fans, though obviously that would require more buy-in from your co-workers.
posted by brainmouse at 1:24 PM on May 21, 2013

I brought an oscillating floor fan into my cube and it is amazing at keeping me cool in a stuffy summer office. Something like this can be a total game-changer.
posted by kate blank at 1:24 PM on May 21, 2013

Can you make a weird swamp cooler and come in to work with a small cooler of ice that you open and then run your small fan over the top of? This one runs on batteries. Also look into cooler fabrics like linen and seersucker if those are allowed. Much lighter fabrics that breathe for shirts. Find ways to skip the undershirt or switch to a singlet. Maybe also one of those hard to see neck cooler things with the gel that you can pop in the freezer (is there a fridge at work) and then wrap around your neck to keep your head cool?
posted by jessamyn at 1:30 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bring a small hand towel, wet it with cold water, wring it out, put around your neck.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:31 PM on May 21, 2013

Try running your wrist under a colder water tap. A large amount of blood relatively close to the surface and so you can feel the coldness spreading up your arm. Its a nice, if temporary, relief.
posted by cacofonie at 1:33 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a pair of small vortex fans, or something like them that moves a lot of air, and use them to create a breeze across the floor underneath your cube. If you have an AC vent nearby, you can try and create a breeze from it to you, which might help optimize whatever cool air it does manage to put out. You can also play around with the structure of your cube walls. Maybe a breeze underneath them will help pull in some cooler air from elsewhere, or maybe it'd help more if they were above them, etc.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:37 PM on May 21, 2013

This kind of evaporative cooling neck bandanna thingy is great. Get 2 or 3 and keep extras in the freezer and swap them out through the day.

Get flag print shown on package for extra patriotism!
posted by Rock Steady at 1:37 PM on May 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

My wife swears by a little battery-powered swamp cooler when her office (ancient University building) gets sweltering. Search Amazon for a "Handy Cooler".

If you have unlimited budget, get a Dyson air mover. For more modest pricing, Vornado makes the quietest fans, and my own desk features a Chinook (soft blade, shroudless) AC-powered fan.
posted by Kakkerlak at 1:38 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cotton or linen clothing; drink lots of ice water
posted by travertina at 1:40 PM on May 21, 2013

Also, can you shift your working hours? If you can start work at 6 or 7 am you can have several hours of relative cool before the day really heats up.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:43 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a "Cool Cloth" -- not this one, but very similar. I find it does help and you can reuse it over and over. I actually think it is just a synthetic chamois...that's what mine feels like.
posted by Lescha at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2013

I don't know if your "dress down" dress code goes as far as T-shirts, but one summer when I was working in the fires of hell, I used to do the following: go to the toilets; remove T-shirt; soak it in cold water in a handbasin; squeeze/wring very gently so it's not actually dripping; put it on again. Repeat as necessary (in my case I think it took about half an hour to dry out on my body). Obviously not a trick to try with a thin white cotton shirt, but some synthetics can hold a fair bit of water without showing it in the least.

Also, evaporative neck cooler thing and drinking ice water.
posted by pont at 1:46 PM on May 21, 2013

A fan is a must. I would also bring a damp bath sheet in each day and hang it somewhere near me in the path of the breeze. I would wear short sleevedshirtsand run cold water over my wrists when visiting the rest room. I would also take a wash cloth and keept it wet and to hand for moistening my wrists and brow. Who knows, these practical sreps may encourage a swift resolution of the ongoing problem
posted by BenPens at 1:48 PM on May 21, 2013

Linen shirts have been mentioned and are a good idea for your upper body, and you should also look in to tropical weight wool pants or other lightweight pants.

Here's a PTO post about light shirts for summer. You might post on r/mfa for thoughts on lightweight pants. I thought there was such a post on PTO but I can't find it at the moment.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:51 PM on May 21, 2013

Nthing the cooling neck wrap.

Also, can you take your shoes/socks off at your desk? It's pretty much impossible to feel hot when your feet are cold; you could keep a small of ice water fairly inconspicuously under your desk, then dip your feet as needed throughout the day. For a still less messy solution, freeze one or two gallon jugs of water overnight, set on the floor under your desk (without opening), and rest your bare feet on them throughout the day.
posted by Bardolph at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2013

(I am not a CIH, I don't play a CIH on TV, none of this is CIH guidance.)

OSHA's technical manual on heat stress has been considered guidance only (by employers, I should add), and has been overlooked until recently (although thankfully that is beginning to change, following the highly publicized issues with heat stress in the Amazon warehouses and some enforcement actions around that time). The technical manual is here, and here is a more accessible page.

I'm guessing 85 is right below the technical standard that would apply to you -- see TABLE III:4-2. PERMISSIBLE HEAT EXPOSURE THRESHOLD LIMIT VALUE in the technical manual, which sets a TLV of 86 degrees for continuous light work. (I'm assuming you'll get above that tomorrow, though.)

I have no idea how the military thing plays in, esp. as you seem to be a civ contractor -- maybe someone else knows? I am curious about this.

Your state may have more stringent heat regs, although again, not sure how the military thing impacts that.

Most heat stress programs are focused on outdoor workers, workers in hot environments like foundries, and workers who do strenuous tasks, but the regs apply to office workers as well. I've personally been sent home from a state office without air conditioning after the people with thermometers came through and decided it was too hot for us. So monitoring for heat stress does happen in offices.

Finally, I'm not sure if the heat exhaustion you mention was figurative or not, but if you begin suffering actual symptoms of heat exhaustion, it may be time to seek medical help (and report it as a work-place injury).
posted by pie ninja at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing swamp cooler. Get a big plastic bag (gallon size will work), fill it with water, put it in a bowl or box and freeze it in the bowl or box (so you end up with a nice block of ice), then put it in front of a fan so the air cools as it blows over the ice and on to you. I've had to work in an office in the summer with no A/C and this helped so, so much.
posted by lovableiago at 2:41 PM on May 21, 2013

It might not be the most socially acceptable but a gel ice pack - wrapped in a paper towel - on your groin is really good at cooling you down quickly.

Of course you run the risk of forever being known as Ice Crotch Dude. Or Crotchsicle.
posted by elizardbits at 2:44 PM on May 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wore a phase-change heat vest from Texas Cool Vest under my motorcycle gear. It made a huge difference when riding in the Houston sun. I think they come with 2 sets of the phase change material packs, so you can have one in the fridge while you wear the other one.

You can wear an undershirt, then the cool vest, then your work shirt. Inside the vest can get damp, but I don't think it ever got my outerwear wet.
posted by BeeDo at 2:47 PM on May 21, 2013

The best way to answer your OSHA question would be to call OSHA. You can do so anonymously. None of us has enough information about your workplace to answer your question about how specific laws might apply to it.
posted by decathecting at 2:51 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't use ice. Ice is too cold, it actually makes you hotter by constricting the blood vessels. You want one of those funky parafin packs that melts at 70 degrees F or so.
posted by BeeDo at 2:51 PM on May 21, 2013

Cold water foot bath! This recently happened in my office, and a couple Tupperware containers of cold water under my desk saved me. I threw a towel down there too, so if someone stopped by, I could quickly and inconspicuously wipe off my feet, slip on my heels and be presentable.

(On preview, seconding Bardolph)
posted by JannaK at 3:20 PM on May 21, 2013

I have a cool gel pad draped over the back of my chair which cools my upper body nicely. A small fan right on the desk for you and your electronic equipment.
posted by effluvia at 3:33 PM on May 21, 2013

This fan.

Read the description, "Small air circulator is more powerful than an 18-inch commercial fan". They aren't kidding. Accept no substitutes.

I own like 3 of these in various sizes. Small, extremely quiet, draws very little power(i slapped it on my UPS once and checked, it was less than a lightbulb!), and moves an ungodly amount of air when you need it. Seriously, more than most large tower fans or floorstanders. You'll be thanking $deity when you're suddenly getting extreme swampass/sweatyback or just generally overheated and realize the things only on low and you can still turn it up to "F18 at full throttle with afterburners on" while not making enough noise to disturb the guy at the next desk.

I've used the same large one in every place i've ever lived, all the way back to my parents house(At which i bought one after a few $12 drug store fans failed in a very hot room running 24/7). I've had a small one at the very least on hot days at my office ever since.

Oh, there's also this cheaper new version that doesn't tilt, but personally i like setting it on the floor and not on my desk, and having it blowing up on me a bit is good since these fans make a very cohesive column of air. I'm also suspicious of their new stuff not being as high of quality.
posted by emptythought at 4:13 PM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Skip the paper towels, whether you could get them from the restroom or bring in your own: bring in a couple terrycloth hand towels and washclothes instead, and wrap ice cubes or gel ice packs in 'em.
posted by easily confused at 5:52 PM on May 21, 2013

Fan or fans; moving air is very effective at cooling you. Sweating helps your body get cooler, a fan helping sweat evaporate helps more. Stay really hydrated. Bring a cooler of ice and frozen gelpacks every day, and drink ice water, wipe your face with a cool wash cloth, put a cool gelpack on your neck when you feel especially wretched. Light breathable clothing that wicks moisture.

Assuming the offices have some windows, many people have success with keeping the windows closed early in the day to keep the cool air in, and definitely closing blinds against the sun. When I worked in an old building with no A/C, we opened the stairwell doors, and opened windows at the top of the building; it helped a lot.
posted by theora55 at 7:27 PM on May 21, 2013

Hit the bathroom for a sponge bath - wash your pits, splash your face, dowse your hair with water.
Maybe bring a change of underwear, undershirt and socks, and change every couple of hours?

Can you take your shoes off and sit with your feet in a pan of water? And quickly slip on some shoes so you can "be professional" when people walk up to your cube?

Of course, no jeans, right? Khaki's? I won't even suggest a Kilt.

There're all sorts of "wicking" clothing.

Those pump mist bottles are great.

nth'ing moving air == a fan. Maybe a hand fan, even a makeshift one such as a folder, magazine, or pad of paper.

Embrace the sweat! Do you sweat on purpose (work out, sports, etc.)? I find that people who don't sweat on purpose are uncomfortable with the very idea of sweating, like it's gonna kill them. Once they realize they're hot, but they're not gonna die, and get comfortable with the idea, they're much less bothered by heat and sweating.
posted by at at 12:10 AM on May 22, 2013

Seconding emptythought. I love my Vornado so very, very much. They last and last unlike your cheap big-box discount imports -- I mean, running 24/7 last and last, although I try to use fan oil at least at the begining of a season -- and they are based around a different philosophy. Most people think they want the fan blowing on or across them. The Vornados operate on an air circulation principle, much like a ceiling fan, so they actually move the air in the room around by preferably some sort of floor-to-ceiling 45-degree angle (think Pong).

I got one of these because we inherited an old floor fan from my grandfather; it was contained in a heavy steel frame that doubled as a stool, and it kept the room just incredibly comfortable. But it had an open bottom and steel blades, hazardous to pets. Not quite this, but similar. I honestly don't know if the company has any direct lineage, but the philosophy seems to be sustained in the current brand.
posted by dhartung at 3:36 AM on May 22, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all. I should be able to get a fan through the company, and I'll probably buy a Vornado, too. Sounds like it's also a good excuse to go spiff up the wardrobe. I've been hesitant to get a fan because the last time I had one it was "requisitioned" for a conference room when some bigwigs were here and then it disappeared.

As far as opening windows or shifting work hours, people that have offices are required to keep doors closed when they're not in and windows need to be shut after hours, so there's little airflow from that angle. Plus, since they're fixing the air handlers, there is literally zero air moving through the HVAC right now. We're all basically stewing in our own juices. Couple the sealed building with the fact that all the government employees are required to keep their computers on overnight for software updates and it stays hot basically 24/7.

I may try the pan of water for the feet, too.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:24 AM on May 22, 2013

I just bought these a week ago and they really seem to work. They work better than a plain wet towel (though that is good too).
posted by jclarkin at 3:41 PM on May 22, 2013

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