© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Builders Battle Freezing Temps To Keep Construction Boom Going

Kai Yee on a Cleveland construction site in winter
Adrian Ma
Kai Yee, a laborer with Local 310, says if construction workers cannot work in the cold, employers will find someone else who will work in the cold.

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.

The Cost of Winter Construction

Area developers are racing to meet pent up demand for new houses, apartments, and commercial space (in downtown Cleveland alone, there are 17 projects slated for construction, according to the Downtown Cleveland Alliance). And with hundreds of millions 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, construction manager at Arbor Construction, which began work last September on what will eventually be a 29-story luxury apartment building near Public Square called The Beacon.

On a recent January morning, the job site, located atop a parking garage on Euclid Avenue, 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 be 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,” Trump said. For The Beacon, a project he said will cost approximately $60 million, the additional expense could easily run about $100,000.

But even with these challenges, Trump said the decision to shutdown production isn’t easy. That’s because for builders, every day lost to weather can potentially cost thousands of dollars in the long run.

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: $4,000 for each day the project is late. The goal, Trump said, is to finish by Spring 2019. But due to weather delays, they are 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.

Braving Freezing Temps To Keep The Building Boom Going

Carpenter Thomas Cole Crew in a winter construction site.
Credit Adrian Ma / ideastream
“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. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

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 is no special trick to working in subfreezing temperatures.

“You just gotta suck it up,” Yee said, 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 the top concern. Still, 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 or 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, workers who spend hours outside in subfreezing temperatures should 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.

Winter weather also increases the chance of slip-and-fall injuries. 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.

Despite the risk of injury, illness, and the hours of discomfort workers must endure in the wintertime, there is no need to feel sorry for them, Crew said.

Come springtime, “when it’s 70 and sunny, we’re the lucky ones.”