Duty calls when snow falls for grounds crew, custodial staff

When a snow day has been declared, the usual reaction is to roll over for a few more hours of sleep, followed by hot chocolate, and a movie marathon. Christopher Bartlett had a different reaction when he got that message last Friday.

“I’ve got to go to work,” Bartlett said.

A few passes with a snowblower ensure easy access to the Science Building after a Feb. 2022 snow storm.
A few passes by the snowblower clears a path outside the Science Building.

The Portland Campus was closed for the day because of a storm that encased every surface in a hardened shell of sleet measuring almost three inches thick. Unlike most members of the campus community, Bartlett didn’t have the luxury to stay home. His shift on the grounds crew began at 4 a.m. as the storm was still gaining strength. Bartlett came prepared, knowing what was in store for him.

“Coffee is a necessity to make it through the day,” he said. “I bring three synthetic layers and then a hooded sweatshirt and then my outer waterproof shell.

Christopher Bartlett takes a break from hours of snow removal work after a Feb. 2022 storm.
Christopher Bartlett may spend up to 15 hours running the snowblower during a major storm.

One of Bartlett’s main duties is to keep campus walkways passable. He clears them with a riding snowblower then treats them with salt and sand. After making a full circuit, he starts again from the beginning in a race to prevent the snow from hardening into ruts and ridges. That routine can go on for up to 15 hours if a storm is big enough.

“They’re always in, even in the worst weather,” said John Souther in praise of the grounds crew that works under his supervision as Executive Director of Facilities Management. “They’re dedicated, they work a ton of hours during the winter depending on how many storms we get.”

The storms came in quick succession recently. The barrage of sleet that fell on February 5 was preceded by a blizzard on January 29 that buried much of Maine in more than a foot of snow. To handle those different conditions, workers are equipped with adaptable utility vehicles. A brush attachment can sweep away lighter snow, while tougher jobs may call for a plow blade or bucket loader to be used instead.

Following a Feb. 2022 snow storm, a sweeper removes sleet from a walkway in front of Luther Bonney Hall before it can harden into icy patches.
Whether it’s a brush or a blower, crews match their equipment to the demands of the job.

Each campus has its own unique demands. In Portland, the uppermost level of the parking garage needs special attention from plow drivers. Vehicles can ride out the storm on the ground level, but as with all surface lots in Portland, vehicles are prohibited on the top level during a parking ban to allow for easier cleaning.

Crews in Gorham, meanwhile, need to work around residential students and their vehicles. An email alert will go out ahead of a storm to tell students to park in certain designated areas, allowing plows to cover as much ground as possible without interference. In the following days, students will move their vehicles into the plowed lots while the spaces where they weathered the storm are cleared of snow.

Plow work on the Gorham Campus also includes Hannaford Field to keep it accessible for athletic activities. Clearing snow off the artificial turf can take four to five hours. The baseball and softball fields remain snowed in because their natural grass is too delicate for the plows. As spring gets closer, those fields will be treated with a green sandy compound that promotes melting.

Custodial crews work by hand to make sure the entrances to campus buildings are passable after a Feb. 2022 snow storm.
Custodial crews shovel entrances by hand to keep them safe and accessible.

While the grounds crew tends to wide-open spaces, the custodial staff is responsible for snow removal in the tight spaces around the various buildings on campus. They shovel out every doorway and the steps that lead up to them. Even between storms, the work to keep campus safe from the elements doesn’t stop.

“They always do their best looking out for slippery spots. Each campus has their spots,” Souther said. “Even after the cleanup, freeze and thaw, things will melt, a little water will run across a walkway or something. They pretty much know where to go to put some more sand and salt down to try to minimize any chances of anybody slipping on our campuses.”

Facilities managers advise workers to take frequent breaks to avoid straining themselves during snow removal duties after a Feb. 2022 storm.
Facilities managers urge workers to avoid strains by stopping for breaks whenever needed.

That focus on safety extends to the workers in the course of their duties. Souther said regular breaks are essential to keep them sharp during long and physically demanding shifts. Also among his recommendations is to maintain a deliberate, unhurried pace to reduce risks like falls on icy patches or back sprains while shoveling.

Such hazards are foreign to office jobs. Bartlett sees how eager his desk-bound friends are to get outside in their spare time, but after cleaning up two snowstorms in a week, he’s not so keen to join them.

“I work to relax and go inside on my days off,” Bartlett said.

The threat of snow drops sharply once spring officially arrives on March 20. No sooner is the snowblower put away than out comes the lawnmower. The work doesn’t stop, it only changes with the seasons.