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How 40 tons of salt and 30 groundskeepers keep Miami’s sidewalks clear

<p>A Miami groundskeeper parks in front of a residence hall to clean the grass.</p>

A Miami groundskeeper parks in front of a residence hall to clean the grass.

It’s a cyclical phenomenon. When the snow starts, so does the salt.

Over the course of winter, Miami University’s grounds team lays down up to 40 tons of salt across campus — the weight of a fully loaded 18-wheeler.

Cody Powell, associate vice president of facilities planning and operations, said the facilities department would rather not use so much salt or any at all because it damages the shrubs and turf. It’s needed, though, to make sure students are safe and not slipping on ice.

It can take hours to clear all of the snow from campus sidewalks, roads and steps, depending on the weather and amount of snow. For example, it took five hours to clear the thick snow Oxford received around Jan. 25. The grounds workers started working at 4 a.m. to clear the steps, sidewalks and parking lots to be done by 9 that morning.

“One of the major responsibilities for [the grounds workers] is snow removal,” Powell said. “Dealing with any ice and those types of things is an all hands on deck type of response, and our staff has been very, very good about that over the years, even when it's during difficult times or holidays.”

Powell also said none of Miami’s sidewalks are technically heated; there just happens to be utility tunnels under some of them. The grounds workers still need to shovel the snow off all the sidewalks, but the steam inside the tunnels can help keep it melted. 

Students were appreciative to see the snow gone on their way to class.

“I’ve never seen snow on the walkways, and there is never really trash everywhere, either,” said Ella Winters, a first-year finance major.  

Photo by Sean Scott | The Miami Student
A bike, neglected from the layer of snow covering Miami.

Gerry Geil, the grounds director, said about 30 groundworkers are in charge of keeping roughly 40 miles of sidewalk and 60 acres of parking lots and roadways clear every day. 

Each worker has a specified area depending on what equipment they’re using. Miami has eight snow plow trucks, five of which have salt spreaders, in addition to the orange utility vehicles around campus which also have plows and salt spreaders on them.

“There's always plenty of things to do,” Geil said. “It's just harder to do some of the things that we typically do in the winter time because of the restricting weather.”

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The workers can start as early as 1 a.m. in the morning during inclement weather. 

“On the bitterly cold days it’s challenging, even for myself, to get everyone out but we have duties we have to accomplish,” Brandon Pitman, senior grounds manager, said.

Miami has the same amount of groundworkers in spring and winter. During weather emergencies, though, some staff members aren’t able to make it in due to the conditions or need to stay home to take care of their kids.

Powell said when we do have inclement weather, the custodial crews in the buildings are responsible for doing the hand shoveling on the stoops and steps and then usually the first adjoining sidewalk from those steps to the main sidewalks.

“The custodial crew is not used to working outside, and when we ask them to, they are doing things like shoveling and working in inclement weather,” Powell said. “Making sure that they have proper clothing to deal with that kind of weather is really important to us.”

Pitman, who also helps keep sidewalks clear during weather emergencies, has two managers underneath him and 33 employees in the grounds department.

During the winter months Pitman said the team’s day-to-day involves a lot of snow removal, trash pick up, leaf removal and dead wood removal from trees so students aren't in danger of falling branches. The end goal is to create a safe campus.

Along with keeping the campus safe, there is also a lot of preparation in the winter for the warmer months. Trees are planted in late fall and into winter, and beds are prepped to be mulched during spring break.

“Our dedicated employees have done a great job of responding and dealing with adversity to keep the campus safe,” Powell said.