View atop Mackinac Bridge 'takes your breath away'
Alf Hoglund hooked himself up to a harness, boarded a lift platform and rose almost 400 feet above four lanes of traffic recently.
When he looked down, he was scanning the Straits of Mackinac and traffic to and from Michigan's two peninsulas. Hoglund then began spraying a fresh layer of ivory-colored paint on the Mackinac Bridge.
It's all in a day's work for crews at Seaway Painting, the contractor paid by the Mackinac Bridge Authority to repaint the Mighty Mack's South Tower.
"You don't want to be afraid of heights and doing this job," said his boss and Seaway Painting co-owner Steve Vlahakis.
Hoglund said on "Day 1" of the job, he looked down from his perch and marveled at the view.
"It definitely takes your breath away," he said of the panoramic scene from the top of the tower that rises as high as 552 feet above the rushing waters of the straits.
Crews have been repainting the South Tower since late April. They started at the top reaches of the struts, or lateral rungs — the highest that reaches 382 feet above the road of the bridge — and have been working their way down. Crews also are painting the legs of the tower.
Hoglund is project superintendent for the work. He has worked on other unusual paint jobs, like overpasses, but the Mackinac Bridge is different, by say, hundreds of feet.
"We're only 10 or 15 feet in the air" for overpass jobs, he said.
Paint crews also have to deal with winds coming off the Straits of Mackinac.
Wind speeds are usually 10 to 15 mph faster on the bridge's road span than they are on land, the Mackinac Bridge Authority said. In 2015, a wind gust of 130 mph was recorded, but paint or maintenance crews wouldn't be on the towers in such high winds, says Vlahakis.
After working on the South Tower for several months, Hoglund, 36, of Sault Ste. Marie said coming to the job feels similar to "anybody else stepping out of their vehicle onto solid ground and walking into their office."
Vlahakis echoed Hoglund, saying that once crews are within the enclosed rigging they paint within while on the tower, the painting job is "like working in your living room."
"Once you're in the platform, the wind doesn't bother you," he said, adding that crews would be able to paint inside the enclosure with wind speeds of up to 50 mph outside.
Hoglund said he's more worried about dropping a piece of equipment, like a vacuum hose used to suck up the abrasive material used to strip old paint, onto oncoming traffic than he is about falling.
"If you drop something, it's going to cause some major accident, and knock on wood, we really haven't had no issues out here," Hoglund said.
Fall protection rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate that crews wear a harness that is fastened to the bridge tower in case the rigging they're painting on fails.
Vlahakis said crews from his contracting firm have been working on the bridge on and off for 24 years. No one has been injured during that period. Like other high-risk jobs, gauging insurance for Mackinac Bridge painters is a job for risk assessors.
"It's lots," said Vlahakis, who declined to give a figure for insurance costs.
In April, crews began repainting three struts between the tower's legs. Crews began painting the tower's legs, which are 38 feet across at the base and reach 552 feet above the water, at their top, in early August.
The crews are slated to finish applying a fresh layer of ivory-colored paint on the South Tower by the end of 2020.