GWB Painters: Working with Nerves of Steel

By Rudy King, Media Relations Staff

The George Washington Bridge is one of the crown jewels of American infrastructure, tons of steel and concrete topping out at more than 600 feet high. To keep the world’s busiest bridge painted and protected from the elements, GWB painters need to be as much daredevils as they are skilled workers.

The first requirement is having nerves of steel. Painting columns and arches while suspended under the bridge makes it a job that’s not for everyone — especially at dizzying heights with 14 lanes of car traffic buzzing below.

“This is nothing you’ve ever done on this scope before,” said Todd Whitehill, who recently retired as a bridge painting supervisor after 25 years. “Even if you’ve done tree work or worked in aviation, nothing prepares you to climb steel 600 feet in the air.”

Bridge painters have been at it since the GWB opened in 1931, working as part of the Port Authority Engineering Department. The work entails painting, varnishing and waterproofing all bridge surfaces and structures, and keeping corrosion in check.

To qualify for the job, candidates must pass a rigorous series of written and physical tests, including three on-site challenges – climbing to the top of the bridge, walking the six-inch beam for approximately 90 feet across, and overcoming other structural challenges. Walking the steel at this height, Whitehill said, is a critical requirement.

“If you don’t pass the height tests, there’s no reason to continue the exam because we can’t teach walking the steel at this height,” Whitehill said. “It’s not something you’re bad at today and good at tomorrow.

The views are majestic: north up the Palisades, particularly in the fall when it’s awash in autumn colors, and south along the majesty of the city skyline. But paying attention is critical. More than 70 percent of those hired stay on the job and make it a career. They must requalify periodically, with additional training requirements for scaffold and ladder navigation, handling hazardous materials, lead abatement training, operation of various aerial lifts, among other things.

Not everyone who aspires to become part of the GWB painting crew is equipped for the job. “Either you have it, or you don’t. It’s like American Idol – with gravity,” Whitehill said.

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