Tough Job Tuesday: Mackinac Bridge Maintenance Worker

Over the last four weeks, we’ve looked at some of the toughest and dirtiest jobs Northern Michigan has to offer.

Tonight, the highs and lows of a maintenance worker on the Mackinac Bridge in the fourth installment of Tough Job Tuesdays.

9&10’s Eric Lloyd looks into what it takes to keep the bridge running, even in the worst conditions.

“People will drive by and they’ll see a vehicle on top of the bridge and not see any workers, they don’t realize that there’s people that there are under the bridge.”

The Mackinac Bridge is Michigan’s most iconic landmark, and probably the state’s most unique work environment.

“At any given time we probably have 12 different crews working the bridge and it may change day to day what the crew is doing,” says maintenance supervisor Ned McLennan.

“It’s kinda amazing the amount of maintenance that goes in to maintaining a bridge,” says Todd Mayer.

In the peak summer months there are 36 workers tending to the bridge, making sure she is as safe and sturdy today as she was when she opened in 1957. Think about that, 36 workers for a five mile stretch of road.

If all of Michigan’s roads were treated with that care, MDOT would have more than 860,000 road workers.

But of course they would miss out on the best perk of a bridge worker.

“Oh the view, just a beautiful view,” says painting supervisor Greg Goetz.

“Different vantage points to see things that most people never get to see I got a really cool job actually,” adds Mayer.

Anybody that wants to even think about having a job at the Mackinac Bridge has to get used to the view 550 feet above Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and about 350 feet above the road deck. Luckily for the workers not much work goes on up here, just the occasional painting, light bulb change and every once in a while, a tour.

Mayer says, “I don’t think just anybody could work here on the bridge you know doing the things that we do underneath and the various places no I don’t think just anybody could do it.”

You may not see them, but there are always workers crawling all over the bridge.

The spring is especially busy setting up for the summer work ahead.

Today this crew was putting up platforms that will run between the legs of the tower so they can be cleaned and painted.

“We drop ropes down from the road deck both sides we pull the ropes up, fasten them up there so they can an go anywhere they want to while they blast and paint this, up and down stop anywhere they want to stop,” says Goetz.

Painting the entire bridge takes about seven or eight years. So long that once they finish, it’s time to start again.

“The painting, the spot painting it’s a continuous cycle, it never ends.”

The dirtiest jobs aren’t above or below the road deck, they are here, inside the belly of the towers.

This is a sight of the Mackinac Bridge not many people get to see and I’m not sure a lot would want to thousands of these tiny cells make up the towers which give it its strength and structural resistance but also makes it pretty hard for big guys like me to maneuver.

“A lot of rigging its hard to get to a lot of places so getting there can be difficult to get it set up, its a lot more physically demanding,” says McLennan.

Most of the bridge is still made of its original 57 year old components, all thanks to the engineering and fore thought that went into building the Mighty Mac.

McLennan says, “It’s incredible even the condition of our main cables, it’s just fantastic. It’s an amazing thing.”

But don’t let the view and the cool factor fool you, this job is tough and dangerous.

You know it’s a tough job when there is a safety boat involved and that’s where Mayer works everyday. He keeps an eye out for any equipment or workers that may fall into the water.

Mayer says, “When any of our guys are over the rail or underneath or on the cable or on top of the tower, they safety boat needs to be in the water with someone in it.” 

The 36 men and women working on the bridge are a different breed. They are fearless, they are dirty and they are self reliant.

“We do a little bit of everything we do all of our own work when it comes to welding and fabricating and painting and our own rigging and inspecting, the amount of for that goes into it is tremendous,” says McLennan.