Working outside: In the sun, and not for fun

Rainfall probably has hurt as much as it’s helped to soothe the sting of this summer’s heat for outdoor laborers, including those modifying Assembly Street by the Carolina Coliseum.

Columbia’s heat and the accompanying humidity can be one of the most trying parts of a job this time of year.

“You definitely have to be aware of it — as well as the guys,” said Paul Edwards, Sloan Construction company senior project manager in Columbia. “What we try to do is, with the guys — they’re always out there working it, they kinda get acclimated from the morning when it’s a little bit cooler.”

“But each crew definitely has water and we try to give them breaks throughout the day as well, to kinda make sure they’re cooling their systems down and everybody is kinda watching, too,” Edwards said.

Since April, dozens of skilled laborers have been facing the sun busting concrete and milling it, burying wiring and putting in landscaping in the four-block area of Assembly Street between Blossom and Pendleton streets to make the area safer for pedestrians.

A crew of a dozen or so Sloan employees now are paving in extended new turn lanes in the area — slow and tedious work that generates additional heat for the crew from the ground up — but will better help accommodate heavier traffic when the new USC business school opens next year beside the coliseum.

“Depending on the weather, what we will do a lot of times, too, is schedule the work where we may bring the guys in earlier and cut them off a little earlier — that way we are not out there in the full heat of the day,” Edwards said.

West Columbia resident Graciela Arellano runs Fruteria El-Campo, a well-stocked produce stand set up streetside in her front yard along Sunset Boulevard, open seven days a week.

“Mucho hot,” said Arellano, a Mexican national who said she is working to improve her English. “I like (working in the heat) because a lot of people come to buy,” she said, assisted in translation by her 9-year-old daughter, Graciela Torres.

A fourth-grader with an easy smile who is fluent in both Spanish and English, Torres said her mother not only works the fruit stand in the heat of the day during summer, but year-round, including at times when one might wish for a leftover flash of July’s frivolous warmth.

Back in town, city of Columbia electricians Lindsay Bacon and Wayne Ervin spent Friday afternoon in and out of a hydraulic bucket atop a utility truck moving from light pole to light pole along the Vista end of Gervais Street.

Employed by the city’s traffic engineering department, the two were installing receptacles to light up new wreaths that will be on display this Christmas in the Vista. The bucket Bacon was in attaching the receptacles also had a place in it to hoist an umbrella, like all city utility trucks do, which Bacon had open to help shield him from the sun.

“Once it’s 90, I can’t tell the difference between 90 and 100,” Bacon said. “Hot is hot!”

Bacon and Ervin do the traffic signal maintenance for all the city’s intersections, Bacon said, and the lighting for all the various festivals put on in the city, including the annual St. Patrick’s Day bash in Five Points.

“It’s been mid-90s every day,” Ervin noted, “and all the rain has made it pretty humid.”

Like most workers whose normal work day involves hours of open exposure to the sun, Bacon and Ervin said nobody actually gets “used to” the summer sun in South Carolina. Instead, they learn how to tolerate it.

Still, both members of the duo said they actually like working in the outdoors, heat and all, because it’s never dull. “I worked in an office for 71/2 years and it wasn’t my cup of tea,” Ervin said.

“One of the best things about our job is the freedom we have,” Bacon said. “The scenery might be the same for us for about two weeks, but after that it changes.” It’ll take the two about two weeks to install the receptacles on all of the Vista’s 50 poles on Gervais Street, after which they’ll move on, they said.

A fairly regular cool breeze is one of the welcome solaces that 16-year-old Savannah Jumper finds in her outside summer job renting out tubes and kayaks 28 to 30 hours a week at the West Columbia Riverwalk Amphitheater, at the foot of the Gervais Street bridge.

“It’s a good summer job and I like to work outside,” Jumper said. “It’s not boring — people come all the time. We have (especially) a lot of the people who come on the weekends, and that’s the best part, because I usually work Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”