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February 22, 2007

For some Pitt employees, work is no haven from the weather

Perhaps Punxsutawney Phil was right after all and spring is just around the corner. But it will take more than a few days with temperatures in the relatively balmy 40s to convince plenty of Pittsburghers that the groundhog’s timing was just a bit askew rather than completely off the mark when he made his prediction.

Not long after Phil failed to see his shadow, decidedly un-springlike weather hit western Pennsylvania with a vengeance, creating headaches for anyone shivering, shoveling and shuffling through the ice and snow.

At Pitt, office workers typically have a warm haven waiting for them on campus, once their commuting hassles are overcome, but others aren’t so lucky.

Plenty of Pitt employees have jobs that take them outdoors, even in the worst weather. Mail and deliveries need to reach their destinations. Office equipment needs to be moved. University vehicles that break down in the cold need to be repaired. Traffic needs to be directed and laws enforced. And most of all, the way needs to be cleared.

Topping the list of those who brave the weather no matter how fierce are Pitt’s groundskeepers, who plow, salt and shovel the campus parking lots, sidewalks and pathways.

“They look forward to it because they get a little overtime,” said Chuck Turbanic, assistant vice chancellor of facilities maintenance and operations.

Even so, the path to a fatter wallet is no easy skate.

“The only time it’s worth it is when the paycheck comes,” said groundskeeper Mike Dayak. “Until then, you go crazy.”

He and his co-workers have had their share of craziness in the past several weeks as they struggled to keep ahead of the rapidly changing weather.

“We’ve got to be done before the people come,” noted groundskeeper Ron Rose. “When daylight comes, you’ve got to be well on your way to being done.” Not only do they need to have the campus in shape in time for the workday, but athletic events can bring thousands of extra visitors, posing an additional challenge on nights or weekends.

Among the few advantages to the bitter cold: “Nobody’s out,” Rose said, making the job a little easier since there are fewer people and vehicles in the way.

Still, several nights in which temperatures remained in the single digits were no picnic. “I’d rather have a foot of snow than an inch of ice,” Dayak said.

“We were pretty much caught up until the ice hit,” agreed fellow groundskeeper Jeff Zourelias. During the worst of the weather last week, extra shifts were added and groundskeepers worked around the clock.

“I spent Valentine’s Day with these guys,” Zourelias said, making it clear it wasn’t a romantic occasion.

Like many who work outdoors in the inclement weather, keeping comfortable can be a problem. While mom might advocate bundling up, those who work up a sweat shoveling snow and ice know that dressing too warmly can backfire. Dayak, a 26-year Pitt employee, learned early on that becoming wet and chilled is a sure recipe for a day of misery. Now he dresses for the weather without overdoing it, and keeps a change of clothing in his locker for good measure.

The groundskeepers’ jobs aren’t as simple and straightforward as they might seem — it’s not just salt they’re spreading, but one of three kinds of ice melters used depending on the surface. A master page listing each campus location and the type of treatment required is kept close at hand for reference.

Ordinary sidewalks and parking lots are treated with rock salt, but two other kinds of chemical ice melters are used elsewhere. For example, the new plaza at Litchfield Towers gets a milder magnesium chloride melter called Safe Step. Likewise, the walkways near the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel are de-iced with Safe Step and are plowed with a rubber-edged blade to prevent damage to the sandstone.

There’s also a product called Ice Pro, which is easier on vegetation. The more salt that’s used, the more work groundskeepers have come spring when they need to re-seed grass and replant shrubs damaged by the ice removers.

Groundskeepers go beyond salting, shoveling and plowing. When deep snow hits, it’s got to go somewhere — they have a skid loader and backhoe to scoop it up and haul it away after it’s been plowed off the pavement.

The groundskeepers may be first, and most appreciated, but others are left out in the cold as well. Bicycle officer Tina Bradley of the Pitt police department commends the groundskeepers’ efforts, which make her job easier. She’s right out there with them, often riding in cold or snow in order to cover more ground on her shift than she could on foot. For safety, she sometimes chooses the University’s walkways and sidewalks rather than streets when snowy or icy conditions prevail.

“Sometimes my supervisor will tell me ‘Don’t ride today,’” but typically it’s her own call, Bradley said. “If I think it’s not safe for me to be on two wheels, I can make the decision.”

Bradley sometimes divides her 3-11 p.m. shift between cycling and walking — opting for the bike first, then putting it away if the streets ice up as the sun goes down and temperatures fall.

Cold is another difficulty in coping with her outdoor job. “I should buy stock in Under Armour,” she said, referring to her preferred base layer of wicking, temperature-regulating clothing. Unless she knows she’ll be outside for extended periods, such as on a traffic detail, she doesn’t like to add too many layers that would restrict her movement.

Even in the coldest temperatures, she wears the department-issue winter cycling pants and a layer of Under Armour, her vest, uniform shirt and a coat. Dressing warmly and getting indoors when possible is her way of handling the cold.

Likewise, Pitt police motorcycle officer Sam Salvio rides year-round. He agrees that the key to comfort is the proper clothing. The fleece-lined triple-layer uniform pants are a must. He adds a T-shirt, turtleneck vest and jacket in addition to a double layer of gloves and a hood that covers his face up to his nose.

“No matter what, you’re going to feel some cold,” he said.

Riding in winter weather has been made easier this year by the department’s purchase in November of trike-conversion kits called Voyagers. The detachable stability devices give two extra wheels in back, boosting his confidence when riding on wintry roads. “Even when we had snow last week, I was able to get around,” he said. “They are awesome.”

Still, caution and common sense are in order. “If you want to slide you can, but you don’t push the limit when you’re on a motorcycle,” he said. “If we didn’t have those Voyagers, I wouldn’t want to be on a motorcycle at all.”

The self-described motorcycle lover takes the weather in stride. “I prefer summer,” he admits, but adds, “Being on the motorcycle here is the best job, in my opinion, that you can have. You have to take a couple of bad days for the many good ones you have.”

Others who keep on moving in spite of the weather are the University’s movers. Although he won’t wear a hat, even with short hair, “it doesn’t bother me,” said Dave Rahuba, a 26-year Pitt employee who has worked as a mover for three years. Unlike bicycle officer Bradley, Rahuba opts for plenty of layers: hunting boots; heavy socks; jacket; fleece vest; sweatshirt, and several T-shirts.

While other outdoor workers relish the chance to get inside to thaw, for movers, going in and out of buildings can make it difficult to stay comfortable.

The layers Rahuba wears are fine for loading office equipment and furniture onto the truck and transporting them to their destinations, he said, but indoors, he quickly becomes too warm, making for a constant bundling and unbundling in an attempt to keep from overheating.

Getting through the snow had been the bigger problem recently, Rahuba said, noting that maneuvering trucks on Oakland’s steep streets was difficult. In addition, the snow made it hard for the movers to actually get the items they were transporting into the truck. “It’s hard getting to the curbs with dollies,” he said.

Among Rahuba’s recent moving jobs was picking up computer and office equipment from Bellefield Hall for delivery to Surplus Property. To overcome the difficulty of getting the wheeled carts filled with old keyboards and monitors to the truck, on a recent snowy day, movers used a metal ramp to span the gap between sidewalk and the vehicle’s hydraulic lift.

Still, Rahuba and his co-workers take the winter weather in stride. There are worse things than cold, he said. “Rain’s terrible. With cold, you can bear with it.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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