Eastern Iowa workers brave extreme cold to get job done

Safety remains a priority for Corridor employers, employees during cold weather months

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Rubber gloves and sleeves sat on the heater in the cab of an Alliant Energy rig, parked near a power line outside the Best Western Cooper's Mill Hotel on First Street NW and F Avenue NW in Cedar Rapids on Friday morning.

In a few minutes, lineman Joey Welton and Ron Spading would be exposed to the elements 45 feet up in the air as they move a capacitor bank, a job that could take up to four hours. The protective gear will retain the heat for a few minutes, but soon the rubber will stiffen and push in the cold on this single-digit temperature day with a slight breeze.

"You really have to concentrate when you are up there," line foreman Gary Henry said of working with 7,200 volt power lines. "You don't have time to think about how cold it is."

They also don't have a choice.

Energy crews work in one of a number of fields that don't have the option of just turning up the heat during extreme cold weather, which are predicted throughout this week. The potentially dangerous conditions and avoiding symptoms such as frostbite, hypothermia and trench foot, require equal parts appropriate attire, frequent breaks out of the cold and common sense.

For Alliant Energy, work picks up when it gets colder because metal shrinks, insulation breaks and lines tighten and snap. Oftentimes their work in extreme element is essential for the customer, such as fixing a power outage.

Working in the cold, or heat, is in the job description, Henry said.

They take breaks in their warm cabs, have flasks of coffee or cocoa and use techniques to minimize the cold, such as positioning the extension bucket as a wind block, Henry said.

Construction crews, such as D.W. Zinser of Walford, put in hours to keep paychecks coming and jobs on schedule during the holiday downtimes, even as the temperature drops.

Steel-toed boots in particular get cold quickly, said Brandon Zinser, foreman on a job site demolishing and removing the old Cedar Rapids city services building at the 1400 block of Sixth Street SW.

"We tough it out," Zinser said. "The hardest part is getting started.

"As long as you keep moving, it's OK. If you stop moving, you get frozen."

Cart collectors at grocery stores, such as at the Johnson Avenue NW Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids, must brave the elements.

"The more you're busy, your blood circulates and you don't feel it," said Jerry Pledge, a courtesy clerk. "It's got to be done."

Pledge warms up by the heater in the store and grabs some hot cocoa.

Kiki Alexander, an assistant store manager, said on extremely cold days, such as Monday, she constantly rotates who is on cart duty, limits how long people are outside and provides staff a warm drink.

Jeff Scherf, owner of J.C.'s Tree Service in Cedar Rapids, will be busy with trimming and removing trees through the winter. Heavy-duty clothing such as Carhartts brand as well a breaks to the truck keep his crews safe.

"It always makes it a little more difficult to do it in the cold, but if you want to keep your guys going and your business going, you do what you have to do," Scherf said.

Peggy Peterson, senior industrial hygienist and complaint officer for Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said OSHA provides employers a "cold stress equation" to help assess risk based on conditions as well as recommendations for staying safe. But there aren't any specific requirements.

When it gets really cold, carbon monoxide poisoning can become an issue if heating generators aren't properly ventilated, Peterson noted. It's hard to judge how many violations occur related to working in the cold because the violations would fall into another category, such as improper protective equipment.

The biggest complaints about the cold don't typically come from people who must work outdoors, she said.

"More often it's office staff concerned that the heater's gone out and they are forced to work in that environment," she said.

Outdoor workers, she added, seem to understand it's part of the job.

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