Cold weather: The job must go on


In terms of cold weather in Minnesota, this winter seems like a doozy.

In December we tied the 1964 record low of 24-below zero and broke the record for the lowest max temperature with -17 degrees.

But based on weather data from the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, December temperatures were just slightly below average.

The average temperature for the month of January was 9.4 degrees, which according to the NWS is actually 2 degrees above normal.

But try telling people that are out working in the elements how this winter compares, and you'll get an answer that things have not been above average.

"This winter is probably one of the worst winters in recent memory," said John Haverland, project/safety manager at Hammers Construction Inc. in Perham. "We've not worked a 40-hour week since before Christmas."

And it's not as if they don't have work to do, the cold won't allow it. Between December and the second week of February, our region has experienced 44 days below zero, according to NWS climate summary. For the outdoor worker, whether delivering mail, pounding nails or blowing snow, that's a game changer.

Hammers Inc. has several builds in the area including the Wadena utilities shop, Ray's Sport and Marine in Perham and an addition to Steve's Sanitation in Perham. Weather has been a factor in their ability to work.

"We've actually implemented some cold weather guidelines," Haverland said. Depending on the windchill, they may not be able to operate basic tools and machinery necessary in construction, like the scissor lifts they use to install steel on their structures. And the cold can be dangerous for the workers that have to operate those tools.

"They got to be a pretty hardy bunch," Haverland said. "They are a different breed, and they get used to it."

But getting used to it also involves heavy clothing, more breaks and in some cases late starts and early outs. On numerous cold days the last few months, the workers have waited to work until about 10 a.m. and stopped at 4 p.m. to take advantage of the warmer parts of the day.

"We don't shut down," Haverland added, noting the long list of jobs that the group of over 40 construction workers must keep up with. "We push right through."

One of those employees pushing through this week was Chris Padin, a construction worker with Baxter Construction Inc., out of Graceville, Minn. He was working on the exterior of a future Jennie-O turkey barn between New York Mills and Perham this week.

With temperatures in the single digits, fresh snow blowing off the roof into his face and a brisk wind to his back, he was working quickly to stay warm and finish the job.

But considering his last job involved working in the freezer at Jennie-O, he's gotten used to cold all year-round.

"I really like this work," Padin said as he screwed metal trim in place.

The foreman on the job, Adam William Baxter, said work has been slowed by the cold, enough to push them back about a month. Even so, they had the shell of one of the three 60-foot by 560-foot buildings near completion, creating a place out of the wind. While inside the building it was very cold, workers said they looked forward to warmer days ahead.

In cases of emergency work involving power for customers, work must go on and often the work is in difficult weather.

While no crews from Legacy Power Line Inc. were working in the Wadena area during this recent cold snap, rest assured they were still enduring the elements with jobs in Iowa and South Dakota.

Legacy employees about 40 line workers, who work year-round doing contracted work on power lines in and around the state.

Legacy Power Line Inc. President and Owner Jim Koranda said part of the job includes working in all elements. This time of year that means wearing lots of layers.

"They make sure they have the right clothing," Koranda said. "We make sure everyone keeps an eye on the other guy, watching for signs of frostbite."

Along with layers, a key is keeping extremities warm, where much body heat is lost.

"Our guys could have a 10-12 hour day," Koranda said.

Ten to 12 hours in the extremes would seem like conditions that would scare off most employees. Koranda said that has not been the case as most of the line workers have come from the lineman program offered at M State in Wadena and many are avid outdoors people, eager to spend their working days outside.

And in home repair and construction, Mark Stone of Mark Stone Construction in Wadena is feeling the cold like everyone else out there.

He's experienced dead batteries, keyless entry doors that won't open and equipment that does not want to operate in the cold. And on the coldest days, he said it's better to not work outside because of all the extra work to setup and takedown in an unstable environment.

"Some of the work you push back," Stone said.

He recalled a recent 20-below-zero morning. That requires at least three layers of clothing.

"You can't move very well," Stone said.

But he said once you are out there, your body starts to get used to it. It works better to stay outside at that point rather than to come back in, which only forces your body to acclimate again.

And to schedule only inside work in the winter just doesn't work out, Stone said. Inevitably something needs to be fixed on the exterior, and it usually needs to be done in a hurry.

He's been in construction since 1981, and said he's not going to complain about the cold weather work because he's doing what he loves.

How does the body acclimate to cold?

According to the human body adjusts to cold weather in an effort to survive. The site indicates three main things your body does to handle the cold.

1. Your energy expenditure decreases

The body will inherently source and spend its energy levels differently in order to keep itself warm. During this process, the body will reduce some of its muscle contractions and reallocate the amount of carbohydrates used.

2. Your blood flow reduces

Blood flow is first reduced to the skin and the peripheries including, the fingers, hands and feet. This is why these areas of the body tend to get coldest the fastest.

The more heat the body can conserve, the more successful the body is at keeping its core temperature in a healthy range.

3. You start to shiver

To bring the body's temperature back up, the body will try to generate heat itself by allowing muscles and organs to shake within the body, or shiver.

While this method uses more energy and is quite inefficient, it usually begins when skin temperatures begin to fall.