I-70 workers chug as many as 800 bottles of water a day to keep cool

Construction workers account for more than a third of all workplace heat-related injuries in the U.S.

Guillermo “Red” Gallarzo at work on the future park above I-70 in Elyria Swansea. July 8, 2022.

Guillermo “Red” Gallarzo at work on the future park above I-70 in Elyria Swansea. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
KEVIN-lighter

Denver is entering peak heat season, and we wanted to check in with some people whose livelihoods center around being outside. We went to visit workers on the clock with Kiewit Meridiam Partners as they finish up a leviathan renovation on I-70 through Elyria Swansea — in particular, the people turning the top of the tunnel from Josephine to Fillmore streets into a park.

Hot weather on job sites is no small matter. One study found construction workers accounted for 36 percent of all “occupational heat-related deaths” in the U.S. between 1992 and 2016, though they only make up six percent of this country’s total workforce. The researchers also found Hispanic workers, particularly those from Mexico, are at “statistically significant elevated risk” of dying from heat, and wrote climate change will make everyone’s jobs more dangerous.

Guillermo “Red” Gallarzo, who’s Mexican and has worked on I-70 since the project began in 2018, said the heat bothered him when he started working jobs like these in Las Vegas. Not so much anymore.

“The first day I wanted to quit. I was like, ‘This is too hot!'” he said. “You get used to it. I have two coolers of water so we stay hydrated.”

Work on the future park above I-70 in Elyria Swansea. July 8, 2022.

Work on the future park above I-70 in Elyria Swansea. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Chugging water, in addition to tents for shade, is the main way Kiewit deals with hot days.

“There’s measures we take to make sure everyone’s well-hydrated and stays safe out here,” Alex Milyard, a lead engineer for the tunnel cap project, told us. “Recently, the key point of every day has been hydration. We reinforce that. It sounds like a broken record, but we tell the guys every day to stay hydrated.”

Workers are encouraged to drink a bottle of water every hour. There can be as many as 80 people working as many as 10 hours on the project each day, which means they swallow up to 800 bottles per day (provided everyone keeps up with recommended fluid intakes).

Alex Milyard (left) checks on recently poured concrete on the top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea that will soon become a park. July 8, 2022.

Alex Milyard (left) checks on recently poured concrete on the top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea that will soon become a park. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Milyard also said the company provides electrolyte packs and posts “urine charts” near bathrooms so people can monitor for dehydration.

“The state of their hydration, the color of their urine,” he clarified. “We tell them to pay attention to those and also pay attention to the signs of heat stroke.”

Colorado has some data on heat-related hospitalizations, divvied up by county. Between 2011 and 2020, Denver has averaged 35 such hospitalizations per year – these do not necessarily happen at work. Colorado averaged 410 each year in that timeframe. The numbers don’t paint a picture of rising injuries over time. Research in 2021 suggested heat-related workplace injuries are vastly undercounted, in the order of tens of thousands of incidents that are never reported.

Print
Source: Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Dan Virgilio, Kiewit’s manager for the cover top project, said the company is always keeping an eye out on weather conditions.

“We’re constantly trying to adapt to whatever weather comes our way. Just being in Colorado, that shifts very rapidly. You might have a very warm morning and then a big thunderstorm or wind storm,” he said.

He can remember days during I-70’s renovation where work was called off early due to heavy snow, but not so much for heat. As far as he knows, he added, his crews are focused on more immediate weather shifts, but he hasn’t heard about longer-term planning related to a warming climate.

“We kind of look at it as we go along,” he said.

Workers with Kiewit Meridiam Partners turn the top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea into a park. July 8, 2022.

Workers with Kiewit Meridiam Partners turn the top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea into a park. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

For his part, Red Gallarzo said he has no plans to return to Nevada’s punishing dry heat.

“No, I love Colorado,” he told us. “It’s not as hot, and we got the mountains and we actually have four seasons. Vegas, it’s just one.”

And now, a quick update on the future park:

Virgilio said much of the work has focused on the lanes below, all of which will open fully in about a week. Traffic has been routed into the tunnel below the neighborhood for a little more than a year, all onto one side that will soon be dedicated to westbound traffic. The eastbound side will soon be ready for motorists.

Still, he said work on top of the tunnel has been going “really good.” On Friday, workers poured concrete steps that will lead onto a lawn as others moved rocks into place that will be the base for a huge astroturf soccer field. Stadium lighting for future play is already up.

Ashley Roman, a spokesperson for Kiewit, said they should reach “substantial completion” by December.

A worker spreads out fill material on top of an I-70 tunnel through Elyria Swansea that will support an astroturf sports field. July 8, 2022.

A worker spreads out fill material on top of an I-70 tunnel through Elyria Swansea that will support an astroturf sports field. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
These big foam blocks will serve as fill material beneath grass planted on top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea that will soon become a park. July 8, 2022.

These big foam blocks will serve as fill material beneath grass planted on top of an I-70 tunnel in Elyria Swansea that will soon become a park. July 8, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Weird times

Denverite is powered by you. In these weird times, the local vigilance, the local context, the local flavor — it’s powered through your donations. If you’d miss Denverite if it disappeared tomorrow, donate today.

You’re our superpower

Denverite supporters have made the decision to financially support local journalism that matters to you. Ready to tell your networks why? Sharing our “About” page with your own personal comments could really help us out.

You’re our superpower

Denverite members have made the decision to financially support local journalism that matters to you. Ready to tell your networks why? Sharing our “About” page with your own personal comments could really help us out.