As we begin the month of November those of us that work in and around the water have to start planning for seasonal changes and the accompanying cold weather challenges. Water temperatures begin to drop rapidly, sometimes over a degree Fahrenheit (F) per day. This presents a whole new bunch of logistical and safety risks.
Our founder Jim Brennan used to say, “When you sit down to your Thanksgiving turkey, you’d better have all your equipment where you want it.” This still rings true today, though mostly in a different fashion. Back in those days (pre-1960s) we usually shut down jobsites for the winter because construction costs were higher and risks were greater. Now-a-days winters are busier than ever. From critical maintenance on Lock structures to fast-tracked projects, the construction season never ends.
As winter approaches, there are 2 things you need to keep in mind when working around the water:
1. Adjust your safety program and save a life
According to the US Coast Guard, a person may lose consciousness in less than 15 minutes when he or she has fallen into water that is 32 degrees F or colder. This means that each and every crew member must be extra vigilant for conditions that may result in a person falling overboard. Slippery decks and walkways, in addition to heavy clothing can make it very difficult to move around jobsites. Ice-tread for boots, additional railings, snow-melt salt, and even harnesses should be considered for overboard prevention.
In addition to prevention, response plans are incredibly important. If a person has less than 15 minutes, then crews need to be able to react quickly because they will be the first responders. A quick-launch boat or rescue device should be positioned for fast deployment. Each member should also be aware of the challenges of rescue operations in cold water. In the event of an overboard incident, a 250-pound person wearing heavy clothes can be extremely difficult to pull out of the water, especially if they are incapacitated. Ladders, rope and pulley systems, or even nearby heavy equipment may be essential to save a life!
At Brennan we practice Man Overboard Drills year-round, using a test dummy that is similar in size and weight to a typical construction worker.
2. Prepare your equipment for a hard freeze
Water temperatures can drop rapidly, and that old saying of Jim Brennan’s should be heeded. Usually by Thanksgiving we start to see ice form on the Mississippi River in La Crosse. Some years it can be completely frozen, and some years it may still be open. Unfortunately it is hard to predict much more than a week or so in advance so we often look at the 10 year average data from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Depending upon your location, public information may be available on water temperatures. Here are a couple of resources that you may find helpful.
If you are freezing in equipment this winter, keep these points in mind:
- Position your equipment where you want it so you don't have to move it
- If using a bubbler system, have a backup plan in case you lose power
- Avoid creating duck ponds (areas of no escape) with your barges
- Station rescue equipment (ex. liferings, ladders, rescue boats, etc.) around the site
- Check your equipment for ice damage (bilges, barge compartments, drive shaft packing) on a regular basis
One could create an exhaustive list of items that should be considered while preparing for winter work, but the key is to be able to know and identify all of your risks. Water temperature is a driver for many of these risks so repare accordingly, because there is little time to respond if something goes wrong.