Cold temperatures and rain can add an element of discomfort, as well as risk, to highway construction. But road builders can't let the weather keep them from their jobs. And many wouldn't think of trading their outdoor workplace for an office.
On a beautiful blue-sky day, the job of a road-construction worker can look mighty appealing — fresh air, hands-on labor, burly tools … and cool orange vests.
But those crew members aren’t just working the sunny side of the street. Many are out there in gusts and glare, in mud and murky fog, sweltering or shivering, in all kinds of weather, all year long.
And most of them wouldn’t trade it for anything.
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“Seven months out of the year, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Jerry Clark, a journeyman carpenter working on the Highway 18 widening project in Maple Valley.
“I don’t mind the rain. If it rains, it’s warm, and if it’s cold, it clears up.”
Clark has been in the construction trade for 28 years, all of it outdoors.
For most of the past 14 years, he’s been with Atkinson Construction. The Colorado-based contractor is handling the $56 million, three-year Highway 18 project, which will widen the roadway to four lanes and install 15 bridges and 45 retaining walls.
Atkinson is a year-round construction company, so its crews, like mail carriers, tugboat operators, firefighters or any other outdoor worker, can’t let the weather keep them from their jobs.
So they learn to work with it — or around it.
Kathleen Wilcox, Atkinson project engineer/office engineer, said weather can affect projects at any time.
Highway projects employ people from a variety of trades. For more information:
Jobs: WorkSource Washington, work.wa.gov
Training: The Job Skills for Trade and Industry program at Renton Technical College, 425-235-2352, ext. 5800, www.renton-tc.ctc.edu ; Seattle Vocational Institute, sviweb.sccd.ctc.edu/; ANEW (Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women), South Seattle Community College, 206-768-6671.
“In the wintertime, certain standards have to be met to pave, for example,” she said.
“The pavement has to be a certain temperature, and we can’t pave if it’s raining. But even though you can only pave when it’s nice, you still can be pouring concrete and building bridges.”
And weather can affect the workers just as much.
To counter summer heat, Wilcox said, crews have access to plenty of water to prevent dehydration, and in the wintertime, heaters in the foreman shack ensure that everyone can eat lunch somewhere dry and warm.
Workers develop their own coping skills, too.
“When it’s 38 degrees and raining and then you throw in a 20 to 30 mph wind, you can’t even work your hands,” Clark said. “You have to dress for it. But I can’t handle nails with gloves on, so I wear a glove on one hand and get my nails with the other.”
Inclement weather also can add another element of risk to construction work, Wilcox said.
Rebar gets icy
“In the winter, it’s more dangerous because everything is slippery. Dirt turns to mud, you can slip in the mud, rebar gets icy. You have to be real cautious with the footing.”
Even on a recent sunny midwinter day, Clark’s job site near the intersection of 244th Avenue Southeast and Highway 18 is slippery, sloped and pocked with puddles.
Dressed in company-provided harness, hard hat, safety vest and goggles, Clark is able to work around the water as he sets a retaining wall.
But water might not be his biggest threat, anyway.
“Statistically, the most dangerous thing is working with traffic,” Clark said. “In bridge construction, we have more injuries due to traffic than falls.”
Clark, 46, of Mukilteo, started in the construction industry in high school, working for his brother.
He later joined Carpenters Union Local 131 Seattle, dabbling in condominium and light commercial construction before veering into roadwork.
A lot of construction employees take a similar path, said Dave Doles, Atkinson’s Highway 18 project manager.
“All hourly employees are union members,” Doles said. “When we need help, we go to union hall.”
Doles said Atkinson works with unions representing carpenters, laborers, cement masons and equipment operators, and they administer apprenticeship programs.
“It behooves unions and contractors to try to bring along youngsters out of high school,” Doles said.
“It’s becoming a continuing problem to get qualified workers.”
In this highly competitive business, Wilcox said, even apprentices make good money.
A starting flagger makes $28 an hour plus benefits, she said, along with the potential to advance through the hourly ranks (apprentice, journeyman, foreman, general foreman) and then into salaried positions (project engineer, field engineer, office engineer, project manager, superintendent).
For Julie May, of Burien, the path to journeyman carpentry began in a classroom.
She attended a program at Renton Technical College, then worked as an apprentice carpenter for four years before joining the union.
May’s been in the industry for 15 years and has been working on the Highway 18 project for about a year, recently shoving big bolts known as “shebolts” into bridge forms off Maxwell Road Southeast near Taylor Creek in Maple Valley.
“I never wished for an office job,” May said after climbing a ladder out of an excavated work site at the base of bridge.
“I’d rather work outside in the rain than in an office where I can’t breathe.”
Pumping out mud
May said bad weather can complicate her job — pumping out mud and trying to keep cords and tools dry — but it’s not all bad.
“One morning when it started snowing, we were sent home at 10:30,” she said.
To those who might think the job is too cushy, though, carpenter Clark has one suggestion:
“Have ’em come out in the middle of winter.”