Businesses Respond To Heat

August 4, 2006
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This year's uncharacteristically hot "dog days of summer" left the West Michigan area reeling. Some workers had the luxury of turning up the air conditioning, drawing the blinds and spending the day indoors. Others, particularly the blue-collar work force, saw normal routines altered or even made impossible by temperatures in the high 90s early last week.

Much of the crew at Award Window Cleaning Services found themselves coming in on Saturday and Sunday to fill out their work week.

"We tell them to work as long as they can and pull off when they can't stand it anymore," said owner and sales manager Mark Reinhart.

Washing the windows at GrandValleyStateUniversity's EberhardCenter on Monday and the National City Bank building on Tuesday, Reinhart's workers were about as intimate with the sun as any employee in the city last week as they sat atop 10 stories of reflective surfaces. The workday ended for the high-rise window washers at — but not because the washers were too uncomfortable. The windows became so hot that the water evaporated as soon as it hit the glass, making washing impossible.

Roadwork construction shut down early on the stretch of I-96 between Marne and Walker, along with other M-DOT projects across the state. Temperatures 90 degrees or higher cause concrete to become brittle when it cures, said spokesperson Dawn Garner, severely affecting the quality of the surface. As such, all M-DOT concrete work shuts down when the mercury hits 90, which happened around most of last week.

Under the circumstances, it would seem that most concrete work would have halted during the heat wave, yet some construction continued.

"It gets a little tricky when you're talking this type of heat," said Fred Statler of Statler Concrete and Supply in Kalamazoo. "It'll suck all the moisture out of the concrete."

Concrete companies and contractors do everything in their power to keep the concrete flowing, Statler said. They pour as early in the morning as possible, and keep substrate damp with a hose or sprinklers. Some firms use a retarding agent to keep moisture in; all use a curing agent.

Most of Statler's drivers were done by last week. He took special note of construction workers dealing with metal forms for building supports.

"Those forms get hotter than hell," he said. "You better pour those early in the morning before they heat up."

Allendale tapered roofing manufacturer Triangle Design Inc. had a similar problem with its materials last week. Certain adhesives and some wood and plastic components weren't behaving as designed in the afternoon heat. During the morning, when it was 15 to 20 degrees cooler, the tolerance levels were normal. So Triangle started running its plant from to . Not only was the manufacturing process consistent, electric costs were cheaper and employees were able to get out of the factory during the hottest times of day.

"Most people tend to get up earlier when it's hot anyway," said president Tim Sanders. "So they get to work at 5, they can get in an 8-hour day by . Psychologically, they feel like they have a paid half-day off."

Sanders reported the same occurrence on client sites in Detroit and at the ever-expanding Toyota flagship plant in Kentucky. Many of these projects carry night shifts that clock out at 9 or , with little work being done in daylight hours.

"Contractors have to put roofs on when it's not raining; we have to produce product in a timely fashion," Sanders said. "We're both using the clock to our advantage."

Belmont landscaping firm Lawn Ranger has tried its best to adjust its schedule to the heat. On Monday and Tuesday, when most of its scheduled work is commercial structures, it can start the day at or earlier. The rest of the week, it's touch and go — never earlier than , but as close to it as possible.

"We got a call from a lady today who called me just about everything you could think of," said founder and President Brent Fields. "We were mowing her neighbor's lawn at . Didn't say who she was or what number I should call to apologize. … Our customers always understand; sometimes their neighbors don't."

Last Monday, the firm kicked off the day at , building enough of a lead to cut off at Tuesday for a barbecue at Fields' cottage.

"Sometimes, you have to look at it and say, as a company, you're not going to make any money today," Fields said.

Fields was impressed last week with some contractors that worked at his home during the afternoon heat: North Kent Well & Pump and overhead door-vendor Bouma Bros.

"The door company — I didn't think there was any way they'd come out on Tuesday," Fields said. "Up in that ceiling, with no wind or anything — that had to really suck."

In many cases, the work just has to get done, and there is little flexibility for bowing to the weather. At large construction companies such as Pioneer Construction and The Christman Co., managers go to pains to schedule work around the heat, but are not always successful.

"You can change your work activities to deal with the weather and hope it passes pretty soon — switch things around so you're not baking in the sun," said Pioneer president Tim Schowalter. "But I can't imagine a temperature high enough that would require a complete work stoppage."

Don Staley, Christman's Lansing-based safety manager, agreed. Like Schowalter and thousands of high school football coaches last week, Staley preached the necessity of constantly drinking water. He also advised extending the duration and frequency of breaks throughout the day.

"As hot as it's been, there comes a point — like this afternoon — where we've had several projects just shut down with exterior work," Staley said. "There comes a point where you're just not going to get any productivity."    

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