It’s all back again: icy rain, sleet, snow, hail, and frigid weather for much of the country.
Does winter weather affect construction? You bet it does, though some jobs are more disrupted (or require more adjustments) than others.
A senior PNC economist told MarketWatch in 2014 that he estimated the extremely harsh winter that year cost the U.S. economy $15 billion, with two of the key factors being weak consumer spending and reduced construction.
Cold weather and concrete
It takes severely low temperatures to weaken some materials used in construction, like metals, but others—such as concrete—are affected more easily.
If not handled properly in cold weather, concrete can develop ice bubbles that reduce its strength by 50 percent. Therefore, initial concrete temperature as delivered must be warmer than normal to protect against cooling in cold weather, which can be achieved by heating up either the water or the aggregates prior to mixing (cement should not be heated).
And since concrete takes longer to set in the cold, finishers may need to hang out longer—and employ windbreaks, enclosures or supplementary heat—to get the job done.
Other construction jobs affected by cold (and wet) weather
An ancient but thorough research report by the U.S. Department of Commerce gauged the impact level of sleet, freezing rain and ground freeze on a variety of construction-related jobs (see table, right).
Not surprisingly, the tasks most affected were related to concrete pouring, stripping and curing—but they also included demolition and jobs like waterproofing, trenching and underground plumbing installation.
Ground freeze is a factor in almost any work that is done on or in the, er, ground.
Left out in the cold
It’s no secret that working in cold weather can be harsh, and that morale can sag when the bitter weather doesn’t let up. But some physical effects of cold weather are more obvious than others.
That same commerce department report compiles a list of what can happen to the body when working in cold weather, which probably hasn’t changed since 1972. Among other things, their list includes frost bite (of course); trench foot, when your feet are exposed to prolonged cold and walking becomes painful; dehydration; and constipation, from dehydration and changed eating habits. The lower the temperatures, the longer the list of possible health hazards.
Not surprisingly, hand surface temperature (HST) is a critical factor in determining productivity in cold weather. Researchers have found that manual dexterity starts to decline even after prolonged exposure to weather below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remember, though, we’re talking about the temperature inside your gloves. Which brings us to the final point: not only does cold weather require those doing outdoor work to drink plenty of fluids, just like in hot weather, and eat more due to increased metabolism. It also requires that you dress properly at all moments to avoid getting bitten by Father Frost.
Closing tip: several layers of light- or medium-weight clothing provide more warmth retention than one heavy garment equaling their total thickness.