Tough Jobs Tuesday: Painting the Mighty Mac

At dizzying heights battling gusty winds, the people who hike up the Mackinac Bridge every day have to be brave.

It’s no question they have some of the toughest jobs in our state.

Especially when it comes to maintaining and repainting the Mighty Mac.

9&10’s Samantha Radecki toured the bridge with some of these workers in tonight’s Tough Jobs.

“I don’t think that everybody could possibly do this job, no I don’t think so,” said bridge painter Kit Huskey.

Exposed to the elements, hundreds of feet above the water, these men have their work cut out for them.

“If we didn’t repaint these sections as frequently as we do, the bridge would be in really poor repair,” said Bob Sweeney, Mackinac Bridge Authority

Spring means closed lanes and construction crews clogging up traffic.

But trust us, they are here for good reason.

“The bridge is aging, the bridge is over 57 years old today, and in order to preserve those components, we need to get out there and work constantly,” said Sweeney.

Right now, most crews are painting or prepping to re-paint.

This is the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the massive structure alive.

And in this work, there is much more than meets the eye.

“There’s a lot of steel underneath, I’ve had people say ‘oh your just doing the hand rails’, I say ‘no, no you go underneath and see there’s box beams, there’s high beams, there’s all kinds of beams, you know what I’m saying,” said Steve Vlahakis, Seaway Painting.

To do this job, you cannot be afraid of heights.

I asked, “When I look down there, I get goosebumps, when you look down there how do you feel?” Steve said, “I’m used to it so you know, there’s a deck right here and right below there’s another deck, and in the middle there’s a fence, and then down below this there’s another deck like this, so once you get down there, it’s not bad at all.”

If you aren’t used to it, this climb down can be quite scary.

There is nothing but open water below you.

“It’s not your everyday guy, ‘oh yeah I’ll come out and work’, it’s ‘oh yeah I’ll come out and work and then uh-oh’, they see what it’s like,” said Steve.

I’m underneath the Mackinac Bridge right now with the men who work hard every single day to maintain this bridge. Over to my left, you can see there are some people down there right now getting ready to paint and sand blast the bridge, up at these heights, if you look this way, this is the ladder we climbed down from the road bed to get down here, this is a tough job.

“We have some areas that are easily accessible, and some that are certainly more challenging to get to, and this would be a good contrast between the two,” said Sweeney.

Not only do these men work on top of and below the road bed — they also get inside.

In these tight tunnels is where the real hard work is done.

After years of water and sand getting inside, the cells begin to rust and corrode.

Kit and Clay spend their days maintaining every one.

These are the cells, there’s 5,000 of them in the Mackinac Bridge, that these men have to paint and clean, they’re very, very small and if they didn’t maintain them, the bridge would deteriorate.

“If you’re claustrophobic, it’s not the best place to be,” said Kit. “It’s just tough you know,…There’s no room to work at all in there, it’s very slow and it’s a very large bridge… and it’s extreme and it’s a dangerous job.”

These men do all this while combating the changing elements over the Straits of Mackinac.

The strong west winds blast the bridge.

Wind speeds on the bridge are usually 20 to 40 percent higher than on land.

“It is a tough job and the conditions are extreme, like today it’s warm right now, it’s extremely cold here all the time just bundling up and coming out here to work on the bridge,” said Kit.

So the next time you see crews on the Mighty Mac, slow down and be mindful.

These workers have a big enough job without having to worry about dangerous drivers.

We can typically only do this type of work from April through November so it’s more and more work each year, so the guys are working longer days to get that done,” said Sweeney. “And the location of the bridge over the Straits of Mackinac, some locations on the bridge are more than 500 feet above the water, makes it a very challenging and tough job as well.”

Even though it’s a big job, the men say this breathtaking view from the top never gets old.