Cold winters can’t stop glaziers in Alaska

December 26, 2006
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With temperatures well below zero, driving winds and snow, and little to no sunlight for half the year, working as a contract glazier in Alaska is not for the faint of heart.

“Construction goes on year round, even when there’s no sunrise, and when it gets about 40 below in the dark and cold,” says Chris Gregg, business manager for the Painters and Allied Trades union in Anchorage. “We don’t stop in the winter—we work right through it.”

One way glaziers and other workers cope is through giant canvasses and reinforced plastic sheets that are draped over the outside of scaffolding, creating a tent around the building. Large fans blow hot air into the enclosure, making temperatures more manageable, Gregg says.

However, tenting is only a common practice on larger projects. On the rest, frequent warm-up breaks become essential, along with wearing multiple layers of clothing, says Jim Emfinger, a retired glazier working part time at Fairbanks Paint and Glass in Fairbanks. Emfinger says most glazier wear several shirts, a sweater and a thick coat topped with blizzard-proof coveralls.
“You can dress for the cold,” he says. “The only thing we have trouble with is keeping our hands warm.”

Wearing two pairs of gloves might keep hands warm, but the layers make it difficult to complete the job, says David Nelson, a journeyman glazier for Statewide Door and Glass of Anchorage.

“You carry big gloves with you, but 80 percent of the time, they’re in your pockets,” Nelson says. “You can’t handle screws with gloves on, and we’re constantly scraping ice off the glass with our hands.”

The environmental challenges go beyond bodily strain, Nelson says. On many days, Nelson and his team face icing on glass and frames, creating difficulty achieving a tight seal.

“If the temperature is right, [the glazing] is going to ice up instantly, and the sealant won’t stick,” he says. “So, you want to install your units when it’s less humid and seal as you go.”

Glaziers also prep their materials by scraping the ice off, wiping them down with alcohol before installation to ensure a good seal, he says.

Despite the challenges that come with a six-month, dark and cold season, Nelson says Alaskan glaziers take pride in the work they do and that keeps them coming back.

“When the weather is really extreme, and we get a job done in spite of it, everyone feels like they’re doing something no one else wants to do, and there’s a sense of pride,” he says. “When all the other trades are inside because of the weather, we’re the ones who close the building. We get to be the heroes of the day.”