Metro

For construction workers, the cold is a unique challenge

Gilbane Construction workers braved the cold weather while on a construction site on Parker Street in Boston on Friday.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Gilbane Construction workers braved the cold weather while on a construction site on Parker Street in Boston on Friday.

There was little more Nicole Giardina could have done — or, more precisely — worn. She had jeans underneath her thick coveralls, two pairs of wool socks under her snowboots, hat and gloves, and several thermal shirts covered by a fat green work jacket.

Didn’t matter. After a couple of hours working construction at the downtown excavation site where the 36-year-old laborer makes her living these days, out in the deep-space cold and Siberian winds that have beset the city, she might as well have been wearing a T-shirt. Her fingers were freezing. Her toes throbbed.

It’s the kind of cold, she said, that “makes you reevaluate your life choices.”

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While the rest of us complain from the shelter of heated offices about a cold snap as bitter as any the city’s seen in a century, armies of workers don’t get the luxury of stepping out of it once they get to work — beat cops, mail carriers, delivery workers of every kind. But it’s tough to imagine anyone having it worse than the folks wearing the hard hats. For those who are digging, pouring, welding and loading their way through a cold stretch that doesn’t seem to end, a paycheck depends on doing the work, and there’s not much choice in weather like this but to work harder.

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“There’s an old saying — ‘The heat’s in the tools,’” says Peter York, a Lynn-based iron worker who spent Wednesday 14 floors above the city, in the frigid skeleton of a downtown building project. “And it’s true. If you’re just standing around, you’re cold.”

Even for a group accustomed to gutting through brutal winters, the past two weeks — which included a seven-day stretch in which temperatures never surpassed 20 degrees — have been particularly unpleasant.

Though some work sites are equipped with temporary heaters, others aren’t — and the only reprieve from the cold might come during a lunch break or a brief stop in a heated trailer. It’s been worse still for those working high above the streets, where, workers say, temperatures can feel 20 degrees colder.

John Zichelle worked in the cold on Friday.
JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF
John Zichelle worked in the cold on Friday.

It’s gotten so bad this month that a simple trip to the bathroom has become an act of courage.

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“You gotta go, you gotta go,” says Ryan Pyrcz, 27, a Peabody-based construction worker, of using the on-site porta-potties. “But your [butt] is frozen by the time you put your pants back on.”

For workers, as well as the companies behind the projects, the recent stretch has also posed certain logistical problems. Layers of bulky clothing limit workers’ movement and dexterity. Tasks that would be a breeze in normal conditions take three or four extra steps to complete — “or 30 more steps,” jokes Janet Ceddia, president of Altair Construction. And the cold has regularly wreaked havoc on tools and machinery.

“There have been numerous occasions this week where the cranes wouldn’t work,” says Shawn Nehiley, business manager for Iron Workers Local 7. “One job, it took four hours to get it started.”

And while advances in workwear have made things more tolerable than in years past — these days, workers can don sweat-wicking clothing, electric sweatshirts, and $250 insulated work boots — the reality is that, when temperatures reach certain depths, there’s only so much that can be done.

“Minimizing the discomfort,” explains Shawn Dougan, a pipefitter from Arlington who spent the past week working an outdoor site in Salem. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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Of course, even as they decry the recent stretch of single-digit days, local workers seem to take a certain pride in making it through an eight-hour shift in the kind of weather currently slamming the area.

As Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, proudly points out, contractors from the South often arrive in Boston expecting projects to be temporarily put on hold in the midst of freezing temperatures — only to learn that the city’s construction workers very often plow right through.

Even on Thursday, when a winter storm bore down on the city, dumping more than a foot of snow, workers in neon green vests could be seen bustling around a pair of downtown construction sites.

“They’re earning every penny,” said Callahan. “This is about as cold as it gets.”

For the most part, local workers seem to have resigned themselves to the reality that, for the next couple months at least, this is what they can expect.

After a recent shift at an outdoor site in Andover, Pyrcz loaded himself into his vehicle for the drive home. Having survived another day in the elements, he now turned his attention to a second, equally daunting battle: the slow process of defrosting himself after hours spent outdoors.

“My toes are just now starting to feel warm,” he said at one point.

He’d been in the car 45 minutes.

Jeff Enamarrado was among those to toil in the bitter cold on a construction site in Boston on Friday.
JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF
Jeff Enamarrado was among those to toil in the bitter cold on a construction site in Boston on Friday.

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.