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Crews battle the elements in Fort McMurray

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by Carol Christian last update:Oct 2, 2014

Biting cold, driving snow, brittle equipment and gelling diesel are just some of the challenges facing workers on a Clark Builders project in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Despite temperatures dipping below -30 Celsius, construction crews haven’t missed a day of work on the Stone Creek commercial development in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Despite temperatures dipping below -30 Celsius, construction crews haven’t missed a day of work on the Stone Creek commercial development in Fort McMurray, Alta. - Photo: Carol Christian


Challenges in cold climate construction become more noticeable at –20 to -25 Celsius.

By –35, workers’ productivity is reduced to about 40 per cent, as they focus more on staying warm, leading to work stoppages when the mercury hits –35 to –40.

“If you’re doing construction in Alberta, you can’t be afraid of the cold,” noted Patrick Flynn, a Clark project manager on the Stone Creek site.

Stone Creek, a Melcor Developments project, is a commercial complex with underground parking.

The majority of the centre is expected to open in March 2014.

That short time frame explains the two tower cranes on site and two contractors doing the concrete.

Melcor rep Dan Eggert said the entire footprint will come in at 205,000 square feet. There are 830 parking stalls with two-thirds in the underground parkade.

“The workers we have here understand that this is the reality of working in Fort McMurray and it’s part of what’s expected of you to be able to do the job,” explained Doug Gordulic, also a Clark project manager.

“We haven’t lost a day yet and we’ve had some very cold days,” recalls Flynn.

With temperatures already dipping below minus 30, Gordulic acknowledged that there are limitations, citing the tower cranes which are unable to work safely after –20.

Work schedules are planned around weather forecasts, but as Flynn and Gordulic noted, there has to be some flexibility because Mother Nature is fickle.

“You have to keep your options open,” said Gordulic.

That’s especially important for such activities as concrete slab pours that are more exposed to the weather.

“If the weather is working against you, you have to have a plan B to be able to do something else,” he added.

“When you can get something done, you have to focus on it and get it done while the conditions allow,”<0x000a>he said.

Garry Dahl, a Clark superintendent was born in Yellowknife and also works in the oilsands.

He joked that the cold is in his blood.

He started his construction career in the NWT and has also worked in the High Arctic, Russia and Siberia.

The coldest he has worked in is –55 in Russia, that’s without the windchill factor which he calls “the killer.”

It can get down to -30, but windchill makes it much worse.

“Put any type of wind factor in, then you have a bad day,” he added, pointing out that workers must remember to put on a wind suit under their winter clothes.

“You really don’t start re-arranging until you get to about -20, -25,” he said.

That’s when, for example, storage areas have to be prepared to protect equipment from snow.

At -25 and lower, heaters don’t burn as efficiently and light towers don’t want to start up.

“Your efficiency on all your equipment starts to reduce as the cold temperatures start hitting -25,” said Dahl.

“You’re looking to make sure that all your equipment has the right power. People forget a lot of times about having enough power into the site to prepare themselves for wintertime. You’ve just added 35 or 40 heaters that all draw power.”

Generators also use more fuel in the cold.

“It becomes so much more important to start maintaining and reviewing your equipment once you start getting past -30 because of the possibility of fractures and breaking, and your hydraulics especially,” he said.

“They just do not like cold temperatures.”

Also, fuel filters start to gel at –25 requiring diesel fuel conditioner or they will start blocking up.

A key to overcoming the cold climate challenges is in the planning, right down to ordering rental heaters, lights and pumps in August because waiting until October is too late.

They’re often all rented out.

That planning also plays a role in keeping workers warm.

The key, said Dahl, to any cold weather dressing is layers, minimum three to four, with absorbent layers to start off with.

Even when it comes to boots, start off with mesh, then a thin sock then a thicker sock.

Change the liners two to three times.

Dahl pointed out it’s the feet is what’s going to affect people the most.

Next, it’s the hands and face.

“Anything that can freeze on you quickly (is vulnerable)” he said.

Face masks need to be changed at least two or three times a day because they frost up from moisture due to breathing.

last update:Oct 2, 2014

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