Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 28, 2014

Frigid weather a challenge for city workers

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — The frigid air stings your nose when you first walk outside on a cold winter day, and it is so invigorating at first that you wonder what all the fuss is about.

Five minutes later, it slaps you in the face and tells you the fun is over. A harsh wind hunches your shoulders. The cold seeps through your gloves and your fingers start to throb, as though pinched by tiny clamps.

You thought two pairs of socks was enough until you feel the cold pounding your toes like an icy hammer. You notice you are shivering and thinking about summer and how much you hate snow.

So you give up and go inside to drink a cup of coffee and curl up on the couch.

Except not if you work for Ashland’s water distribution department when one of the city’s aging water lines breaks.

When most people are finding ways to stay inside, their job requires them not only to spend entire work shifts outdoors, but to do it in the most hostile conditions.

Monday night, for instance, they turned out at twilight and worked until around 11 p.m. to repair the break that deprived a wide swath of the city of running water.

And on Tuesday morning, they were back out on the street to mend more broken lines.

The crew on 25th Street at Carter Avenue had been on the scene most of the morning digging a trench around a broken main. Cold, muddy water roiled through the trench.

The temperature was just a few degrees above zero and the workers had been there most of the morning, crew chief Reed Downs said.

They were wrapped in heavy coats, pants and gloves and wearing waterproof boots, but there is no such thing as enough clothing to keep you warm on such days, Downs said.

Mainly it’s because of the water. He and his workers do their best to stay out of it because once it soaks in, it chills to the bone and makes further work impossible.

When they’re performing serious repairs they sometimes change clothes two or three times a shift, he said.

Sometimes there’s no avoiding it and they have to wade into the water. Their boots are waterproof but that doesn’t always stop water from seeping in over the tops. The department has waist-high waders they can use but the waders aren’t insulated.

“Sometime we just have to go in, but we try to get in, fix it and get out. A lot of teamwork is how we do it. We take turns,” Downs said.

Working in the water isn’t always a quick in and out job, however. Workers Monday night were wading mid-calf deep after dark to get valves turned off, some of which required two people using a T-shaped key and 20 to 50 turns on the valve, Engineering and Utilities Director Ryan Eastwood said.

In a situation like that, “no matter how much you are wrapped up, it’s bone-chilling. It whips right through gloves,” he said.

Workers periodically can turn up the heaters in their trucks and take refuge there for breaks.

All-nighters aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t allowed to work more than 16 hours before going home.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.