Workers risk safety to fill potholes

City employees brave speeding cars, frigid weather to fix roads

City employees, from left, Bernie Hamilton, Sammie Coleman, Jr., and Jeff Green fill potholes while traffic flies past them Wednesday on Anthony Wayne Trail. Rude, reckless drivers can be a frequent problem for rolling work zones.
City employees, from left, Bernie Hamilton, Sammie Coleman, Jr., and Jeff Green fill potholes while traffic flies past them Wednesday on Anthony Wayne Trail. Rude, reckless drivers can be a frequent problem for rolling work zones.

They have names. Sammie. Bernie. Jeff.

They have families. Wives, children, grandchildren.

They have jobs to do. Patch, plow, patch, plow.

As they work, the Toledo city employees hear angry horns. Impatient drivers zoom past, ignoring cautionary blinking lights on the city vehicles.

Pothole patching crews motor along in their trucks at about 5 mph. They are on constant watch: for potholes, for safe places to park to do their work.

RELATED: Winter brings more headaches in ‘Pothole Alley’

As Sammie Coleman, Jr., 46, drives a truck that pulls an orange hot box filled with black asphalt, his head swivels, checking for potential dangers.

In a nearby vehicle, driver Paul Cooper, 47, of Holland, a city maintenance worker, literally and physically has the patching crew’s back. He guards workers with the massive truck and his well-trained eyes.

Pothole. The trucks stop. The men spill out. Wearing neon green-​yellow safety vests, the workers shovel asphalt into a pothole, one of many along the Anthony Wayne Trail.

In spite of Mr. Cooper’s truck pulled into position to protect workers, motorists fly past, kicking up loose stones and coming oh-so-close to the crew.

Some drivers, delayed for a few seconds in their travels, flip vulgar gestures and taunt with the honk in a huff. “It’s as though you are in their way,” said Mr. Coleman, a senior utility worker.

Crew members Jeff Green, 59, a senior utility worker, and Bernie Hamilton, 60, a maintenance worker, remark on the peculiar pothole pattern: People complain about potholes, then when patching crews are out and about, the people complain about the traffic situation.

“It’s kind of like they want us to fix the potholes when they’re asleep at night,” said Mr. Green.

That, however, would be a safety nightmare, said Rich Sorgenfrei, general foreman.

“It would be impossible to do this work at night,” Mr. Sorgenfrei said. “People drive even faster at night.”

On a recent morning, as the wind chill plummeted to 2 degrees, whiz-by traffic was close enough at times to make your safety vest — and heart — flutter.

“See what we’re up against?” Mr. Green asked.

Not all drivers are rude and reckless in the rolling work zones. When a motorist slows down to say thanks, the crew beams with appreciation.

Mr. Hamilton made a plea to motorists.

“Please, please, tell the public to slow down,” Mr. Hamilton said. “We’re a rolling work zone. There is no way we can be safe all the time when people drive like they do, like we’re in their way. So please slow down so you don’t run by the crews so fast and kill someone.”

Added Mr. Green: “Anytime you see the city lights flashing on a vehicle, respect those flashing lights.”

Motorists want potholes fixed. Now. They want snow plowed. Now.

“They need to give us room and respect so we can do the job. We’re working to make the roads safer for them,” Mr. Green said.

Two trucks filled with road salt pass the crew as it patches potholes along an outbound lane of the Anthony Wayne Trail.

More snow on the way, the workers say.

Mr. Coleman glances up. He thanks and praises the Good Lord for this winter, heavy on snow and overtime.

“I have been praying and praying for a winter like this. God answers your prayers, but on His time, not on yours. I hope March is just like January,” Mr. Coleman said.

He brakes to a stop. Another pothole.

“It’s like a Band-Aid, that’s all we’re doing is a Band-Aid because of the freeze-thaw,” Mr. Coleman said.

Snow falls; temperatures warm. Snow melts, settling into asphalt. Temperatures fall. Heave-ho. Up pops the patch work.

“The is the worst I’ve ever seen it along the Anthony Wayne Trail,” said Mr. Coleman, who logs the crew’s time, miles, restroom stops, and lunch breaks.

Another pothole. Workers shovel asphalt from the hot box. Warmed by a kerosene-fired burner, the asphalt emits steam. Then, like a pastry chef icing a cake with a spatula, a worker glides a shovel across the black mass to smooth it out.

No need to tamp the patch until muscles ache. Traffic packs down the asphalt.

Just then, a driver blows past, tossing an agitated look at the patching crew.

“They’re mad we’re in their way. They’re mad when they hit a pothole. They won’t slow down,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Consider, too, it’s no picnic patching potholes in frigid weather. The workers dress in layers. Long johns. Sweatpants. Insulated pants. Sweatshirts. Hats. Gloves. Heavy work boots.

But the cold seeps in.

“We try not to stay out too long,” Mr. Coleman said.

These workers are experienced, professional. They are dedicated. To their jobs. To the safety of the public.

They talk about “bad” drivers not to complain, but to underline safety concerns. They like their work, and they want the public to know that what they do — in spring, summer, fall, and winter — makes the city safer.

And the workers were willing to share the workload ... if only for a few moments. They let me fill a pothole. It’s a lot of work. Hard work.

As I rode in the truck and shoveled asphalt, I learned much. Not only about what they do and who they are, but about why these workers deserve respect.

Show respect for the workers. Slow down, save a life.

They have names. They have families. They have jobs to do.

Contact Janet Romaker at: or 419-724-6006.