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Seton construction continues despite soaring temperatures

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Posted: Friday, July 29, 2011 12:00 pm

By Rebecca Rose

Harker Heights Herald

Drivers passing by the site for the new Seton Medical Center on Central Texas Expressway may have wondered how, in one of the biggest heat waves to hit the South in nearly a decade, crews of construction workers are still able to keep pace.

"It's extreme. You take it one hour at a time," Sharon Morris-Horton said.

Morris-Horton is an ironworker for Group Steel, one of the many teams of contractors building the new Seton Medical Center. She said that while heat conditions are serious, with proper precautions it can be just like any other workday.

On July 13, when ironworkers at the site topped out the structural frame, Morris-Horton was one of the workers who signed the last piece of steel at the top of the frame that will soon become the new Harker Heights hospital.

Originally from Montana, the ironworker has 22 years of contracting under her belt. While most residents are trying to beat the heat by staying cool inside, in air-conditioned offices or venues like movie theaters and libraries, Morris-Horton spends her day doing some of the toughest, most physically demanding labor around.

In the current phase of construction, Morris-Horton's work is devoted to an eclectic effort on site: dividing her busy day between tasks like building window structures, canopies and other support structures.

"The heat is extremely dangerous," Morris-Horton said. "The iron gets so hot, you can fry an egg on it. It's very serious."

"If you start out outside, it's OK," she explained. "Going in and out of air conditioning, that can cause you problems."

Over the years, Morris-Horton has seen her fair share of workers who couldn't handle working in the heat.

"I've seen a few drop. It happens real quick."

To combat the heat and keep spirits up, Morris-Horton brings popsicles to the site to share with her fellow builders.

Mike Herrmann, construction project superintendent at Seton, oversees all the teams of contractors like Morris-Horton working at the site. More than 130 workers work up to eight hours a day - some work as much as 10 hours.

"This is the first time I've worked in Texas. The heat is severe," Herrmann said.

Safety discussion

Herrmann said all the contractors onsite meet every week to discuss safety specific issues, including heat exposure. Most of the workers at the site of the new hospital have experience working on hot summer days and know how to protect themselves.

An orientation program for new workers onsite covers heat-related safety issues. So far, the site has not had any reported cases of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

"We remind them all the time to drink, and stay hydrated," Herrmann said.

"Each contractor provides drinking water for their men," he explained. Water at the site is kept cool and iced down and in plentiful supply.

"We tell everyone to keep eye on their partners," he explained. "We make it our job to check on that, and make sure that they are providing what their men need."

Herrmann said drinking lots of water and avoiding physical over-exertion outside were good pieces of advice for anyone during a heat wave.

"Hydrate before you go out." he said. "Work at an easy pace. Don't try to do something fast or strenuous.

"Be aware of symptoms of distress. If you're sweating, that's good. If you're not, that may be a sign you're in distress."

Harker Heights Fire Chief Jack Collier said anyone working outside needs to be more attentive to the dangers of heat exposure.

"Construction workers, they have got to drink copious amounts of water," he said. "And hit the shade; get out of this heat for awhile."

"Us native Texans aren't even used to this kind of heat," he said. "Forty days of triple-digit temperatures can take a toll."

But record-breaking temperatures don't faze a career construction worker like Morris-Horton, who said she wouldn't want to do anything else for a living.

"I love this work," she said. "I just love building a building, starting with the ground and building something up. It's not just a job for me."

Contact Rebecca Rose at rebeccar@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7548.

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