Seven months ago, Portland construction sites shut down because of snow. This week, they faced the opposite problem, as triple-digit temperatures had site foremen checking the temperature on their phones and checking the OSHA rules governing heat exposure. (There are none.)
At 1411 N.W. Quimby St. in Northwest Portland, where workers are in the midst of concrete pours, plumbing and welding, The Business Tribune asked on Monday how the workers were coping with high temps, and when they would call it a day because of the heat.
At the site where Alliance is building a six-story apartment tower, Cooper Denson, a field superintendent, said 90 degrees was a common starting point for when it's too hot. Chilling in the air conditioned office while it was 86 degrees outside, his colleague Scott Howell, assistant superintendent with Alliance, said when to quit is left to the individual foreman for each subcontractor or trade.
It's not just about heatstroke. There are things they can't do.
"We can't pump concrete past 90," Denson says.
The wet concrete leaves the mixing plant already hot due to exothermic reactions. Usually it cools somewhat along the way, but not when the air temperature is above 90 degrees.
Denson adds that in California they add ice to the cement mixer trucks because high temperatures happen all the time. The risk is that warm concrete cures too quickly, leaving a lumpy, honeycombed pour which is structurally inferior and needs to be removed.
Denson is from Alaska. If 90 degrees is the temperature at which foremen start thinking about shutting down, what happens at 110? "We go to the river," he says with a laugh.
Sheeting a deck
Howell explains that the usual race against the clock is complicated by a race against the thermometer. "There's a couple of trade, their policy is they're not allowed to work past 90. Kind of depends on the crew, what they're doing. If you're up sheeting a deck, the sun reflecting right off that plywood, that'll cook you pretty hard. But if you're underground it's a lot cooler."
Sheeting a deck means laying down the plywood on to which the wet concrete will be poured, so it can harden and become floors. The plywood is sprayed with a lubricant or form release. It's like greasing a cake pan, so the concrete doesn't stick to the form. However, the sun can bounce right off that sheen and make the worker even hotter. The Canadian compares it to getting sunburned while skiing, from the light bouncing off the snow.
They had a safety meeting about excessive heat, and made sure there are water stations and electrolytes available to all workers.
"I've not had anyone stay home, they just work shorter days. Or we can start earlier, if we get a noise variance."
This week is a noisy week with two days of shotcrete (spraying steel beams) and a PT (post tension) deck pour. This is stuff you can't put off. "Your schedule goes to hell if you put it off." They're already behind from the wet winter during foundation work.
Shotcrete is hard to schedule. The Seattle company that does it, Conco, is booked months in advance, so Alliance must make sure it can happen this week, whatever the weather.
Bring in the nois, bring in the $616
Denson shows off a narrow credit card receipt, like you'd get in a restaurant. The total is $616. The payee line reads "Portland Liquor and Nois."
"It's from City Hall, not BDS. They control neighborhood things. You have to have a good reason." $616 buys them a week of 6 a.m. starts (with mechanical noise) instead of 7 a.m. This allows them to stop before the hottest part of the day.
"It's just common sense. If you can get out of the heat, go ahead and work. If you have to be in the direct sun, be careful. Everything comes into play."
Howell is Canadian. He has been living in Milwaukie for a year and a half. "It has to be minus 30, minus 40 and four or five feet of snow before we shut down in Canada," he told the Business Tribune in January when it was snowy. On Monday he reflected, Anything past 25, 30 Celsius I'm thinking I don't like this. If it was up to me I wouldn't be here, but my wife likes it."
Most of the crew are local and are feeling the heat somewhat. "We've got a couple of guys here, one's from Texas, the other just got out of the military, he was in Qatar (in the Arabian Gulf), and they're laughing, like 'You pansies!'"
All hands on deck
Because of the shortage of cranes right now, the tower crane they are using is old — it's from 1982.
"It's got no A.C. The operator put up blinds and a couple of extra fans, and he has a window he can crack open." It's a hard job.
"It's unusual for a crane operator to get down, they're too busy. He hasn't complained yet though," Howell jokes.
Toiling away in the sunshine at street level were two carpenters. They were hammering wood into place, where it held back gravel and would later hold back wet concrete, forming the edge of the building.
Kris Meining is a journeyman carpenter with Marion Construction of Clackamas. What is he doing today?
"Building America." Which part of America? "The Pearl. Building America."
He and his pal Josh Phelps are doing concrete structures — making wooden forms at street level.
"We don't shut down ever," he explains. There's no temperature at which they have to stop. "We drink a lot of water."
They are from the Northwest, and have never worked anywhere super hot, like the America South or the Middle East.
Phelps is an apprentice carpenter, working on four years to qualify as a journeyman. They take water breaks, but the rest of the time they work hard, concentrating on getting the forms ready for the pour.
"It's not so bad right now but later this week…The upper deck gets pretty hot," he says nonchalantly.
What does OSHA say?
Heat-related illness can be prevented. OSHA does not have a specific standard that covers working in hot environments. Nonetheless, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers have a duty to protect workers from recognized serious hazards in the workplace, including heat-related hazards. This guide helps employers and worksite supervisors prepare and implement hot weather plans. It explains how to use the heat index to determine when extra precautions are needed at a worksite to protect workers from environmental contributions to heat-related illness. Workers performing strenuous activity, workers using heavy or non-breathable protective clothing, and workers who are new to an outdoor job need additional precautions beyond those warranted by heat index alone.
Workers new to outdoor jobs are generally most at risk for heat-related illnesses. For example, Cal/OSHA investigated 25 incidents of heat-related illness in 2005. In almost half of the cases, the worker involved was on their first day of work and in 80 percent of the cases the worker involved had only been on the job for four or fewer days. That's why it's important to gradually increase the workload or allow more frequent breaks to help new workers and those returning to a job after time away build up a tolerance for hot conditions. Make sure that workers understand the risks and are "acclimatized."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.