Outdoor workers brave the week's heat

Labor in the sun takes skill at guarding health

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoCarpenters Tom Richards, left, and Jesse Marks work on concrete forms for a barrier on the St. Johns Boulevard bridge at Highway 500 on Friday. Construction crews are among the many Clark County workers who worked through a weeklong heat wave that included a 100-degree day Thursday.

(/The Columbian)

Ask around any construction site: What's the best -- or worst -- spot to be when the temperature climbs past 90 degrees?

You may start to notice a common sentiment.

"It all sucks when it's this hot," said Jeff Cummings, among the many Clark County workers toiling under 90-plus temperatures Friday afternoon.

Cummings works on the St. Johns Boulevard/state Highway 500 project site, where crews are rebuilding the junction into a freeway-style interchange. He's not alone -- for construction crews, roofers, agricultural workers and others, braving the elements is simply part of the job. Each endured a heat wave that Friday delivered its sixth straight day above 90 degrees in Vancouver -- a streak that included a 100-degree day on Thursday.

For outdoor workers, the key to withstanding the heat is drinking water. Lots of water. Several workers on the St. Johns project said they'll easily put away a gallon in a day with conditions like this week's. And they're mindful of more than just their own health. Working under high temperatures can lead to illnesses like heat stroke and heat exhaustion, according to health officials, sometimes quickly.

"You do your best to stay hydrated, and watch out for your partner," said Jesse Marks, a carpenter on the St. Johns project. Nearby, fellow carpenter Tom Richards chimed in.

"If they start acting goofy, that's a red light for me," Richards said, laughing.

Marks and Richards both spent Friday working on the wooden skeleton for the west barrier of the new St. Johns bridge over Highway 500. By the end of next month, drivers should be able to use all four ramps connecting the two thoroughfares, according to lead project inspector Brad Clark. The Washington State Department of Transportation expects to have the $48 million project done next year.

This month's run of hot weather has changed how crews have tackled the job, Clark said. Shifts have started earlier in the morning during recent weeks, so crews are done before the worst heat of the day hits in late afternoon. They've also poured concrete earlier and covered it to keep it from setting too quickly, Clark said.

On Friday, no one at St. Johns endured the worst job of all, according to Clark. That would be laying down asphalt pavement, which is about 250 to 300 degrees when it's first applied, he said.

Workers are keenly aware of the fire danger that comes with hot, dry weather on any project. Just this week, an investigation into a massive central Washington wildfire centered on the construction site where it's believed to have sparked. At St. Johns, a water truck constantly sprays the site to keep dust down and reduce the risk of fire. That's particularly important this week, Clark said.

"By the time he makes a trip around the site," Clark said, "It's back to being dry again."

Friday's temperature topped out at 98 degrees in Vancouver, according to the National Weather Service. Expect a cool-down this weekend, before high temperatures settle into the 70s by next week.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.