For people who work indoors, snow, ice, and subfreezing temperatures are often nothing more than an inconvenience. But for construction companies and their employees, harsh winter weather can be something more — a financial and physical hazard.
Cities across the country — from large urban areas like Chicago to smaller ones like Cleveland — are in the midst of a multiyear building boom, with developers racing to meet pent-up demand for housing and office space. And with billions of dollars in play and deadlines to meet, the work rarely stops even when the weather turns ice cold.
“It’s all about maintaining a schedule,” said Bill Trump, a manager at Arbor Construction in Cleveland, Ohio, which began work last September on what will eventually be a 29-story apartment building costing at least $60 million called The Beacon.
On a recent January morning, the job site, located atop a parking garage in the city’s downtown neighborhood, was silent. The temperature was 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 15 with the wind chill), and much of the equipment and scaffolding was covered in a layer of snow.
That day, Trump (no relation to the president), along with his subcontractors, decided to cancel production because under such frigid conditions even basic tasks can become impossible: you can’t pour concrete because it will freeze; you can’t weld because the metal will crack if it cools too fast; you can’t even use the Porta-Johns because the liquid inside turns to ice.
“When the blue stuff freezes, you want to find somewhere else to go,” Trump said.
There are a few workarounds though. For instance, heated water can be used to mix cement, steel beams can be covered with special blankets to protect fresh welding seams, and open areas can be enclosed with plastic to provide workers some shielding from the elements. But all of these adaptations add to the time and expense of wintertime construction.
“I could retire off the money I’ve spent [each year] on winter conditions,” said Trump. For The Beacon, the additional expense could easily run about $100,000 this season.
But even with these challenges, Trump said the decision to shut down production isn’t easy. That’s because for builders, every day lost to weather can potentially cost thousands of dollars in the long run.
Like most major construction projects, Arbor’s contract with the developer, Stark Enterprises, contains a penalty clause (also known as a “liquidated damages” clause) that kicks in if the project isn’t finished on time. In this case, the damage could be $4,000 for every day the project is late. The goal, said Trump, is to finish by March 2019. But due to weather delays, they are already about two weeks behind schedule, he said.
It’s not just owners or project managers who feel the financial pressure to keep production moving, however — so do the workers.
A few days later at the Beacon site, the mercury was in the high-20s — not tropical, but warm enough for the crews to head back to work.
Other than dressing in layers and trying to stay dry, Kai Yee, a laborer with Local 310, said there’s no special trick to working in subfreezing temperatures.
“You just gotta suck it up,” said Yee, who spends about 7.5 hours outside each day, only breaking 10 minutes for coffee and a half-hour for lunch.
“There’s a deadline to everything, and whatever that deadline is we have to meet,” he said. Although workers can choose to stay home when the weather turns foul, Yee said it is an option they rarely exercise. “These are guys from the union,” he said. “If they can’t do the job they’ll bring somebody else who can. Everybody’s replaceable.”
Despite the pressure to keep producing, both Yee and Trump said safety is always a top concern. But there’s no escaping the fact that winter weather can make construction, an already dangerous profession, even riskier.
“You can be working hard outdoors and work up a sweat,” said Dr. Donald Ford, a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic, “unless you’re perfectly insulated, that sweat is going to serve to conduct heat away from your body.” The combination of heat loss and moisture, said Ford, increases the risk of hypothermia and frostbite.
“If I had a dollar for every time I said, ‘I think I got frostbite,’ I wouldn’t be out here,” said carpenter Thomas Cole Crew.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers have a duty to protect workers from “recognized hazards” including frostbite and hypothermia, but there aren’t hard-and-fast rules. The agency does recommend that workers who spend hours outside in subzero temperatures take frequent breaks. But that doesn’t always happen, Crew said.
“Nobody out here wants to be the weak one, so a lot of times your pride and ego will keep you out there longer than you really should,” he said.
On top of watching their body temperature, workers who are outdoors in the winter also need to watch their step. According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on-the-job falling injuries that result in bone fractures occur more often during the months of December, January, and February than during any other time of year.
Still, despite the risk of injury, illness, and the hours of discomfort, Crew said there’s no need to feel sorry for them.
Come springtime, “when it’s 70 and sunny, we’re the lucky ones.”
This story originally ran in Ideastream on Jan. 14, 2018.
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