Before you gripe about this cold, imagine working in it

News Source: Anchorage Daily News
Publish Date: March 06, 2007

Before you gripe about this cold, imagine working in it

Anchorage civic-center builders find ways to handle chill


As smokers shivered outside buildings and pedestrians hustled to cars Wednesday morning in near-zero temperatures, steel workers building Anchorage’s new convention center straddled metal beams 100 windy feet off the ground.

If anyone’s got it tough in the city’s grueling cold wave that began Feb. 18, it’s the guys who swing steel beams into place on the soon-to-be ceiling of the downtown convention center.

“The cold weather sucks,” groused Dave Leisner, hood over head, ice crusted in beard, as he ducked into a warm trailer for lunch.

Then there’s the new man from Mississippi. It’s not that chilly, even when he’s sitting on cold metal waiting for a crane to haul up a beam, said Luke Roberts.

Then again, he wears three pairs of long johns beneath his jeans.

“You don’t want to sit for too long,” he drawled before joining the rest of the crew from Independent Steel Erectors for lunch.

Cold governs the mood at the huge job site, where steel framework rises inside castlelike walls of concrete.

“It’s slower and more miserable” in the winter, foreman Terry Sampley said before the lunch break, watching from the ground the high-altitude ballet of men and spinning beams.

At zero and colder, welding can’t take place — welds crack.

Then there’s snow. During this winter’s big dumps, workers spent a lot of time removing snow from the beams and melting ice plates with propane torches.

“Some days we were just shoveling,” Sampley said.

Add a knifing wind and it can get really nasty, he said. Tucked beneath taller buildings, the site is like a canyon where trapped gusts swirl.

Wind and cold teamed up to sink wind chills to more than 20 below for a couple days last week, so crew bosses sent some men home. Gusts tore away plastic sheeting that kept heat around some concrete floors, he said. Beams weighing thousands of pounds would have swung dangerously.

Despite the challenges, most days aren’t bad once the sun peeks over the mountains, Sampley said as a man in a hoodie and hard hat attached steel beams to a winch.

Several layers of clothes help, including the lined bibs most of the men wear. And there are other tricks.

“They carry these,” Sampley said, pulling a hand warmer from a leather glove.

Steel workers aren’t the only ones getting cold, said Chris Crabtree with Neeser Construction. You can’t get out of the wind when you’re driving an open-air forklift like he does.

He keeps six pairs of warm gloves in outbuildings, changing them during breaks to stave off frostbite. He wears three pairs of socks and insulated pads on feet.

“I just know you don’t want to put your tongue on that steel,” Crabtree said with a laugh, munching on a meaty hoagie.

It’s been worse, said Steve Strobbe, safety officer.

He once framed wooden walls in 35-below temperatures. Workers warmed power saws indoors and kept the blade spinning once outside.

The trigger wouldn’t click if you removed your finger — the lubricant inside froze, he said. He spends much of his day checking on the men, making sure they’re not too cold. They’re hardy, he said.

“It’s just part of the job.”