A mix of extreme cold and precipitation during the winter months could push the completion date of May 2014 for the Interstate 540 rehabilitation project in Fort Smith and Van Buren off schedule.
The revelation by District 4 Engineer Chad Adams of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department would be a worst-case scenario, he said, but it is still a very real possibility.
“It could affect (the) completion date if we have two or three more months of weather like this,” he said. “It will obviously set them back. Maybe not a day for day type of thing. But I know they were counting on getting some work done during these winter months,” Adams said. "We're still estimating their completion date to be the end of May and honestly, at this point, I think they're on schedule to hit that date. if the rest of the winter, if we're like this through March, then we'll probably have to revise that."
There are two primary reasons for the delays — exposure risk to construction workers and regulations on the pouring of concrete and laying of asphalt.
When it comes to asphalt, Adams said the AHTD's guidelines state that asphalt cannot be laid when the surface temperature is below 40 degrees or if there is frost on the ground. When it comes to concrete, state guidelines are slightly different.
"If the (outdoor air temperature) is falling, then when it gets below 40 degrees, they're done. If it's rising, then once it gets to 35 degrees, they can get back to work."
When it comes to rain, work resumes when conditions are dry enough to start working on various segments of the construction, whatever those may be.
As far as the temperatures causing work stoppages or delays due to exposure risks for construction workers, Adams said his department does not make decisions for the project's contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure South Co. of Fort Worth, Texas. But even with temperatures hovering in the single digits on Monday (Jan. 6), Adams said crews were still out working.
"They actually do have some crews, very small crews, working on tying steel on on the bridge deck," he said. "They tie it in place and eventually come back and pour concrete to incapsulate steel in the deck. And we have one crew working on guard rail items."
Even though Kiewit had crews at work along I-540 Monday, Adams said the company has a clause in its contract that eliminates penalties for missing work due to weather.
"Between Dec. 21 and March 15, we do not charge any working days due to the weather," Adams said. "Right now they're on what we unofficially call free time. Either they can get ahead or catch up during this time of the year."
Of the work Kiewit has done, Adams said none of it would be any less quality due to the cold temperatures.
"There's a little expansion and contraction (of metal and steel) with heating and cooling, but they're not tying it down to where it can't expand and contract as they need to."
Dr. Bruce Crabtree, an emergency room physician with Mercy Fort Smith, said anyone who has to work outside was facing real risks Monday and any other days when the temperature starts to dip below the freezing mark.
"In this kind of weather, frostbite would be more likely – especially for people outside in these sub-freezing temperatures," he said.
Frostbite, he said, causes damage to the skin which can result in damage to the flesh. The Mayo Clinic website said it can lead to damage of the skin, tissues, muscle and bones and could "lead to complications, such as infection and nerve damage."
Besides frostbite, Crabtree warned that hypothermia was also a risk in extreme cold.
"The biggest risk is if you're working by yourself, get hypothermic and don't realize it and (you're not) thinking clearly. (You) get out there and die. So it probably wouldn't be a good idea to work alone in these temperatures, for sure."
For crews working construction jobs or anyone else who must work outside, Crabtree said dressing in layers was the most important form of protection from the elements. He said avoiding cotton would also be ideal for individuals who could sweat even in the cold.
"Wearing clothing that is predominately cotton-based is not a good idea in the cold. Moisture from your sweat in the cold is certainly not good. You want (the fabric) to (move) the moisture away."
If an individual is wearing cotton and the sweat cannot quickly repel from the fabric, they do run the risk of hypothermia, Crabtree said. If a person is unsure whether they may have developed the condition, he added that there is one way to find out.
"Shivering is the first sign of hypothermia. The hypothalamus tells the body to start to shake. That's a big warning that you need to get warmed up."
For individuals facing the elements, the surest way to warm up quickly and safely, Crabtree said, would be drinking a warm beverage.
"Drinking warm liquids and keeping warm things in your internal core is a good idea," he said. "Drinking something hot certainly does help. You put calories of heat into your insides. That is far better when you're cold."
Adams said should a cold weather-related injury occur to any contracted crews during this latest temperature drop, it would be the responsibility of the contractor and not AHTD.
"If they have any type of injury or fatality to their employees, the (AHTD) is not liable for those choices that they make."