A Day in the Life of a Michigan Department of Transportation Maintenance Worker

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake will be following different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.

When there’s a snowstorm, some jobs close for the day, or employees are allowed to work from home.

But not the Michigan Department of Transportation maintenance facilities. Their employees are busiest on the days when roads are bad.

That’s because, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, maintenance workers are tasked with making sure state highways are safe for Michiganders.

“It's our goal to keep all Michigan drivers safe during any road condition, whether it be winter, spring, summer or fall," said Ben Hodges, Grand Ledge Maintenance Facility's Transportation Supervisor.

"After being with MDOT for more than 11 years, I can say with confidence that we all take pride in what we do – serving the people and ensuring a safe commute for all.”

There are two shifts – 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. When conditions are bad, crews work on the road all day with shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. If snow has accumulated overnight, then Hodges holds a meeting at 6 a.m. sharp and assigns employees to their stretches of road.

Mike Lance, Transportation Maintenance Worker, is one of these employees.

“When everything is closed down except for essential employees – we’re the essential employees,” said Lance. 

He drives MDOT’s tow plow – which can plow up to 28 feet and does the work of at least two regular snowplows. There are two tow plows at the Grand Ledge Maintenance Facility and 12 throughout the state.

Once Lance gets his assignment, he fills the tow plow with about 25 tons of salt, and then he’s off. During the ride along, he was tasked with clearing the west end of I-96, from M-43 to the Ionia County line. First, he clears and salts the highway, then the shoulder, then the ramp and then he checks the rest areas. He circles around and around, over and over, until the asphalt or concrete is clear.

“Physically, it’s not too difficult of a job. But mentally – that’s a different story,” Lance said about driving a vehicle that’s about 70 feet in length and worth about $350,000 for up to 12 hours a day.

“There are always cars trying to go around you. I’ve had cars cut in front of me and then spin out. And we have to watch for people who leave abandoned vehicles on the side of the road without their lights on. … I really don’t want to hit a car.”

Lance said many people act like snowplows are an inconvenience – instead of on the road to make their drive safer. On the ride along, there were times Lance would have to wait at least 15 minutes to turn left or change lanes because no one would slow down for him. He said some people have even tailgated the tow plow or tried to cut around him on the shoulder.

“I think they don’t realize how much weight is coming off the end of the plow when it’s snowing. I’ve actually seen cars ride the tidal wide of snow behind me into a ditch,” he said. “If they try to go around me on the right and get into the discharge of the plow, there’s not much I can do about it.”

In an effort to increase visibility, MDOT has incorporated flashing green lights on their snowplows, beginning this year, in addition to their normal amber lights.

“Garbage trucks, tow trucks and private snowplows all have amber lights. There are so many amber lights that people don’t pay attention to them. So, now, road maintenance vehicles are the only ones that can have green lights, just like police are the only ones who can have blue lights,” he said.

A few tips he would give to drivers: Don’t pull out in front of or try to cut around a snowplow. Leave space between yourself and the plow. And, when it’s snowing, turn on your headlights.

“That’s my biggest pet peeve – when people are driving in the snow without their lights on. Especially white vehicles. Yes, you can see, but we can’t see you. If it’s snowing, keep your lights on all day,” he said.

Lance said the most difficult part of the job is assisting law enforcement in closing the highway during an accident, “especially when kids are involved.”

“Every day, when I’m out here plowing snow, my goal is to keep as few cars in the ditch or people getting hurt as possible,” he said.

But, even when it’s not snowing, MDOT maintenance workers keep themselves busy. They also repair the plow trucks, replace road signs, fix guardrails, pave, maintain bridges, spray invasive vegetation on the side of the road and, of course, patch potholes.

“We drive along the side of the road with a truck with an arrow board behind us. When we see a pothole, we stop, watch for traffic, run out, fill the pothole and then run back,” said Lance.

“We don’t really have one job, so we never get bored.”

Lance also works as a volunteer firefighter for the Carson City Fire Department. He lives in Carson City with his wife, her two children and their 2-year-old son.

For more information about the Michigan Department of Transportation, visit www.michigan.gov/mdot. To view an interactive map of where MDOT snowplows are, at any given time, visit https://mdotnetpublic.state.mi.us/drive.