Some people just aren't cut out for work at minus 25 degrees

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When Jim Jeffries goes to work in July, his biggest concern is the windchill. "You open those doors and -- whew," he said. "You can't feel your jaw."

He's not talking about stepping outside, but rather inside -- into the 25,000-square-foot freezers of Great Lakes Cold Storage in Cranberry, where Mr. Jeffries, of Conway, Beaver County, works as warehouse operator.

The 40-degree temperature around the loading dock is balmy compared to air inside the 118,000-square-foot facility's four individual refrigeration rooms, which can dip down as low as minus 25 degrees. And then there are the two blast freezers, where 80-mile-per-hour winds push the mercury to 40 below zero.

Knee-length parkas are kept on hand for visitors to the facility. Employees -- there are 28 in the Cranberry location and more at a second location in Solon, Ohio -- wear company-provided refrigeration suits.

In July, Dennis Nemanic, the company's inventory control manager, donned a knit cap and heavy gloves to complement his winter jacket, as he does for even the briefest of tours into the refrigeration units.

"Some people just aren't cut out for this work," said the company's general manager, Joe Smith.

He sometimes takes potential hires on walks through the vast freezers during job interviews to judge how they react. "You could be the best forklift driver in the world, but this might not be the job for you. Lots of guys get uncomfortable."

Most of Great Lakes' business is storing food, usually for manufacturers storing their products before they are distributed via refrigerated truck to restaurants and retail stores. On its shelves, which hold 16,125 pallets, the operation stores everything from cookie containers, which are simply refrigerated, to ice cream, some 8,000 pounds kept at around minus 15 degrees.

Holidays are peak seasons. Thanksgiving brings thousands of frozen turkeys, and Christmas and Easter mean ham storage, which necessitates a precise 28 degrees to keep ice from crystallizing in the meat.

There are quirky products, too, such as plastic for airplane luggage bins and, once, Egyptian rugs from the Cleopatra era, which Great Lakes stored for a museum to kill bugs and mold.

The facility is chilled using ammonia as an agent. Even in the refrigeration units, Mr. Smith said, a cup of ammonia in the loading dock would be bubbling: Its boiling point is negative 28. Ammonia is pumped through an evaporation system, sucking heat out. "People think it's great to go to work here in the summer months," said Mr. Smith, "but it's actually rough."

Employees have to deal with temperatures that vary by almost 150 degrees, from blast freezer to loading dock and then out to their cars in 90-degree July heat.

Summer weather can also be a "maintenance nightmare," Mr. Smith said. Heat that rushes out of truck beds forms frost on loading dock doors. And the power bills climb by almost $10,000. In the summer, Great Lakes pays between $35,000 and $40,000 monthly for electricity.

Great Lakes employees said that, despite the drastic temperature changes, the summer months are a blessing. In the winter, when it's almost as cold outside as it is inside, it's almost impossible to warm up. But on a hot day in July, when most people were seeking relief in the comfort of air-conditioned offices and restaurants, Great Lakes' employees were able to enjoy their lunch breaks sitting out in the sun.


Molly Hensley-Clancy: or 412-263-1410.


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