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Painters need special traits high atop water towers

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KINGSLEY, Iowa (AP) — Standing at the top of a ladder to clean the gutters on the house is the highest many of us will ever work.

And if looking down at the driveway below makes you queasy, there’s probably no amount of money that could convince you to trade jobs with Migdad Mustafa.

Mustafa and a crew of industrial painters have taken up shop in Kingsley this month, refinishing the interior and repainting the exterior of the town’s water tower. They’ll spend hours suspended on platforms anchored by a system of cables, safety lines and personal rigging devices at heights reaching 94 feet above ground -- the same height of a seven- or eight-story building.

For Mustafa, it’s like working on solid ground.

“Once you get on top, it’s like you’re on top of a house. You’re on the roof,” Mustafa told the Sioux City Journal.

Right. Just like being on the roof of your house.

A project manager, Mustafa’s worked for nearly four years for Maguire Iron Inc., the Sioux Falls company that built and painted Kingsley’s tower in 2004 and is now repainting it. He’s not scared of heights, he said, never been freaked out on the job.

Hanging from a water tower may not be any different to him and his co-workers than walking across the office for you or me, but he understands that his job’s lofty workplace setting likely deters potential workers from even applying for a position.

“It’s not something you can just bring someone in and expect them to thrive,” he said.

Make no mistake, while Mustafa and his crew make this job look like a breeze at the same time an actual breeze causes their work station to sway back and forth above the ground, there are lots of safety measures and training to reduce the risks.

Field superintendent Dave Humble, who has 25 years of experience painting and sandblasting water towers, said new hires climb increasing heights in their gear during safety training. If they get up to 15 feet and start getting nervous, there’s a good chance they’re not going to work out.

“We put them through a screening process before we send them out to do any kind of work,” Humble said.

It’s a demanding job to begin with, so you can’t have workers who are scared of heights painting a water tower with their eyes closed while trying not to look down. You don’t want daredevils who throw all caution aside, either.

“You have to have a healthy fear of heights. You have to respect your heights,” Brian Cooper, Maguire’s director of marketing and business development said while both of his feet were planted firmly on the ground near the base of Kingsley’s water tower.

He and Humble walked through the numerous safety precautions, showing off harnesses that workers inspect at the beginning and end of each day’s work for the slightest bit of damage and demonstrating how the various clips, clasps and grips hooked to safety lines protect workers in the rare event a platform slips while suspended in the air.

Not all the work is done from great heights. Temporary platforms inside the tank are erected for workers sandblasting the interior and then applying coats of zinc and epoxy. But that’s the work the public rarely sees. It’s the painters power washing the exterior and rolling on the paint that either makes one cringe or think these workers have one of the coolest jobs in the world.

Guys like Humble and Mustafa will tell you it is.

“It’s great. You’re out in the fresh air,” Humble said.

At the heights at which crews work, workers take in panoramic views of the varying landscapes found in the 28 states in the company’s territory.

“You get to see the country, that’s a big draw for a lot of guys,” Humble said.

In Kingsley, they’ll get a birds-eye view of surrounding corn and soybean fields and the Loess Hills in the distance. It sounds appealing, but many of the rest of us will settle for cleaning the house gutters, a task that provides a big-enough test of the limits of comfort when looking down.

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, Sioux City Journal.


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