Drama at Construction Sites : Things I Never Knew

I never dreamed that mud piles, cranes and caterpillar machines at a large construction site, could be a stage for human drama of love, tragedy, perseverance, danger, achievement and comedy.  The whole shebang.

Golden Ears Bridge. South Approach, Langley BC 2008. Daily view walking to work office site.
Golden Ears Bridge. South Approach, Langley BC 2008. Daily view walking to work office site.

Well, make that 6 construction sites for 1 huge construction project.  For 3 years of my life, I worked for a $800 million construction project in the suburbs of Greater Vancouver.  We built a 1 km.-6 lane road bridge over the salmon rich Fraser River with 5 highway approaches from 4 municipalities.

So let’s  leap to love.

Bridge opening celebration 2009. A 90 km round  bike trip between site and home.
Bridge opening celebration 2009. A 90 km round bike trip between site and home.

Foreign Employees- Finding Love Globally
While I was not aware of personal love affairs between employees, there were several married couples and unmarried couples, as employees, who joined our project.  What struck me as unusual, were several interracial marriages between ex-pat, non-Canadian employees (German, U.K.) and Asians (Chinese, Filipino).

I worked for a multinational German engineering firm which had construction projects worldwide. Maybe it was just coincidence that several interracial marriages were among management and engineering staff who just finished a multi-year project in Asia. During that time, these men found their partners from that area.

The coincidence that my partner still retained his German name legally, was useful for establishing rapport with German ex-pat employees: I did drop the word that clearly I was not clueless about some German names, simple words, cuisine and cultural mannerisms.

Main construction project office site. My office window was to right of cyclist. Prime location to see construction of bike-pedestrian spiral ramp. 2009
Main construction project office site. My office window was to right of cyclist. Prime location to see construction of bike-pedestrian spiral ramp. 2009

Trapped for Safety
Previously I wrote about  my long work commute that blended cycling, transit and walking between home and office work trailer where I hunkered down with other staff at the main construction site.  All around us, excavating machines gouged huge holes, towering cranes swung tonnes of steel girders while  convoys of concrete and gravel trucks clogged local traffic.

Even office staff, were never far from the clang and dangerous drone of machinery and materials. For several months, only 10 metres from my office trailer window, a spiral concrete bike ramp slowly arose 4 levels up from the muddy hole to join up with the

Completed spiral bike-pedestrian ramp on opening day of bridge. Normally not this many people on ramp. Ramp was constructed less than 10 metres away from my  office window.
Completed spiral bike-pedestrian ramp on opening day of bridge. Normally not this many people on ramp. Ramp was constructed less than 10 metres away from my office window.

road bridge. As a cyclist, I took small comfort that eventually this mess of rebar and concrete would become yet another needed connection for a safe bike route in the suburbs.There were days, employees were trapped at the work site, unable to even drive out to get a lunch hamburger.  No wonder why the lunch truck with submarine sandwiches and chips was a welcome site. Thankfully, at the office there was always a convenient pot of free coffee for employees beavering away at any hour of the day.

During a windstorm that resulted in a power outage and dead traffic lights for hours, there was an 8 metre square of sheet metal that flew in the air around our building. It was several hours before we left the work site.

From the bridge deck before bridge cables were installed. Peaceful scene belies construction drama when work resumes.
From the bridge deck before bridge cables were installed. Peaceful scene belies construction drama when work resumes.

 Fire Danger, Substance Abuse and Tragedy
Another time, a fire plume arose quickly at one of our  nearby construction sites and prompted the scream of firefighting trucks. It was caused by welding.

While there is real danger because of human error, even more troubling, was substance abuse by some construction workers – workers under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.

I didn’t know of this widespread problem in the heavy construction industry, across North America and probably in some other countries, until I hitched a ride after work, with 2 employees which included a safety officer.

Road bridge with bike-pedestrian lane runs over the Fraser River. Salmon and endangered sturgeon fish ply these waters.
Road bridge with bike-pedestrian lane runs over the Fraser River. Salmon and endangered sturgeon fish ply these waters.

For the next hour, I was regaled with story after story, on dangerous shenanigans involving operation of equipment and safety-conscious employees who stomped to the safety manager and Human Resources with demands not to work with drunk employees, etc.

At another construction project, while operating a high-rise construction crane, an operator had passed out from drugs at the crane controls. Only the fire department had a high aerial truck with a cherry picker bucket, to reach the air-borne crane operator.

Shortly thereafter, a drug testing program was administered for such employees working for our project.

However, tragedy struck later. But the cause was not substance abuse related at all.

An ex-pat contracts officer died when he was pulled under a dump of gravel that was pouring out from a truck. For unclear reasons, this office worker shouldn’t have been on-site, in an active construction zone, in the first place. He was chattering on his cellphone, when this incident happened.

Bridge construction site view from Pitts Meadows British Columbia with Mount Baker in Washington in background.
Bridge construction site view from Pitts Meadows, British Columbia with Mount Baker, Washington state in background.

Tough Enough for Outdoor Construction
Vancouver has milder weather than many other areas of the world. There were some freak snowfalls during our construction project. However snowfall and temperatures are not as dangerously cold in more northernly zones, not as humid as Asian jungles nor as hot as the desert in Dubai.  One woman told me that temperatures soared to 50 degrees C when she was working in Dubai.

We had temporary labourers from Thailand who puzzled some Canadian employees.

One of several commemorative signs on the bridge. Golden eagles can be found in bridge location by the Coast Mountains and Fraser River. Near bridge is the Golden Ears Mountain in a provincial park.
One of several commemorative signs on the bridge. Golden eagles can be found in bridge location by the Coast Mountains and Fraser River. Near bridge is the Golden Ears Mountain in a provincial park.

On  fine summer sunshine days, they covered their face with cotton balaclavas.  It was to protect their skin from the sun.  The darker tanned skin was still, ironically associated with labourers, lower class and peasants in various parts of Asia.

Golden eagle sculpture mounted high up on a pillar at each end of the bridge.
Golden eagle sculpture mounted high up on a pillar at each end of the bridge.

Much has been made about more women breaking into construction work. However even some men, just get tired of days with mud, endless rain, bone-chilling cold and the mess of lousy weather conditions.  Sometimes it was stamina and perseverance just to finish each work day.

Comedy, Stress-Relievers and Befuddlement
Our first annual Christmas staff party was truly cross-cultural and probably bewildering.  The party featured several home-made stage drama skits. “Bewildering” was a matter of the audience member’s perspective and their cultural background.  Canadian and American employees concocted a “Twelve Days of Christmas” song parody that highlighted our rare Northwest Pacific coast animal species that had to be protected by law (red salamanders, water shrews), weather challenges, fickle equipment and their handlers.

The German-led performances parlayed mythological references to operatic Wagner ship and land battles. Or maybe it was the engineering imagination gone wild:  they saw themselves as heroes in infrastructure wars.

Bridge opening day crowds swelled up to 20,00 people. Only time this car bridge will flood the road. June 2009.
Bridge opening day crowds swelled up to 20,00 people. Only time this car bridge road will be filled with this many people. June 2009.

Annual summer barbecues were fun. Bratwurst sausage, not wieners, were de rigour as well as sauerkraut. Mustard had to be, at minimum, on the table.  And the European craze over the World  IFA soccer games.  There was a large TV screen provided for employees at the barbecue and hooked up during lunch hour in meeting room for several weeks, to check on the latest match.

More happens at a construction site that's not obvious to pedestrians.
More happens at a construction site that’s not obvious to pedestrians.

Sturm and Drang of Achievement
Like the literary term that translates from German, “storm and urge” or extreme emotions,  the construction drama of that time in my working life, has forever changed me:  I no longer assume anything normal and staid behind that construction fence as I walk by any site.

More Interesting Reading:
Chong, J. Biking to Work in More Challenging or Isolated Work Areas. In Third Wave Cycling Blog.  May 22, 2010.

Gray, Jeff.  Oil Sands Drug Testing Battle Reaches Critical Stage. In Globe and Mail.  Jan. 2, 2013.  Example of substance abuse issues at other construction-industrial work sites.

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25 Comments Add yours

  1. Ray Colon says:

    Hi Jean,

    Like a lot of people, I’ve peered through the fences of construction projects to witness the seemingly disconnected flurry of activity, and marveled at the buildings growing ever skyward over time. That’s about as close as I’ve ever been to the creation of those marvelous structures.

    Construction always seemed like a dangerous profession to me. It’s hard to imagine that co-workers would turn a blind eye to alcohol abuse by others. It seems like the kind of thing that would be taken seriously by everyone on site, given the inherent dangers.

    I like the golden eagle sculpture. It adds a unique accent to the bridge.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      I don’t know of your work experience in accounting, book-keeping, costing and Excel would be, but a large construction project does use folks like you. So consider this and at least it’s contractual. On the project that I was on, there were 3 full-time staff wth a lead licensed accountant. Just a thought if you’ve never thought of such opportunities. Ask for HR or Project Manager after determining which company is responsible for the whole project. And don’t wait for the grass to grow, these projects are on a limited completion deadlines.

      Yup, learned lots during that time.
      I also liked the bridge for some of its small design elements. There are gold lighting poles that flank each end of the bridge, fish metal scultptures in the bridge fence to symbolize the salmon running the river waters from the Pacific Ocean, etc.

      Like

  2. Fascinating post, Jean! I would have loved to hear the 12 Days of Christmas parody!

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      It was an unusual parody and if my memory is right, it was the Safety Manager that did steer alot of the lyrics. 🙂

      Like

  3. Jiawei says:

    Thanks for the sneak peek of the construction world! Something I didn’t know either! It’s hard to imagine the irresponsible drinking and drug use there, given the already dangerous nature of the work. I hope some learning takes place in this area.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      I’m sure in Shanghai there’s even more weirder, even dangerous stuff going on at construction sites. I understand that construction of some high rises can be fast. As you may know here in North America we have some workers who are unionized and there are occupational laws that do bring in the inspectors on-site.

      Like

      1. Jiawei says:

        You are absolutely right, Jean. Shanghai’s construction can be faster, but lives are endangered because of this excessive quest for speed.

        Like

  4. andy1076 says:

    Yeah, I work at a place where a lot of renovations and construction projects happen. Sometimes it’s more drama and issues than you would see on a typical tv show, whew!

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      This is something that many people don’t know unless they can write it up in an entertaining/interesting way.

      Like

  5. lexsborgia says:

    I love the way you’ve presented this post. Very nice. I’ll give it a good read later: cooking now. Cheers.

    Like

  6. lexsborgia says:

    Sturm und Drang (storm and SURGE) in that particular context. If someone has a great ‘urge'(drang) and acts upon it(e.g., the urge to get to the front of the crowd!), then they ‘surge’ forward. A running back ‘drängt’ sich zum Endzone(surges toward/into). It’s a cool word.
    Construction workers usually drink a lot, it’s normal, doesn’t make them substance abusers, does it! They especially like beer – it’s tough 4women to break in because you don’t drink beer. Drugs: Not at work must be rule. I liked your observations, and your Bridge. I worked on a construction site twice(23 yrs ago+8yrs ago) to get some quick cash, both times I didn’t last more than a week. I admire people who can. I’ll be back. Cheers.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      While some people might belong or feel more comfortable to be in a drinking culture…even at a large construction project, there are groups of employees who only do it occasionally and of course, booze is against the law on a construction worksite in North America. I posted the blog link in a cycling internet forum where it’s predominantly cycling guys (maybe over 70% at least) and a few who ran small contracting companies, fired workers who had booze cans on the job and were drinking on-site. So sure, a woman during off hours and somewhere else might want to have a beer or so with co-workers. Or not have any booze.

      My job required that I was working/daily contact with management, engineers and some technicians. Most of them made women feel comfortable. I worked at the main office site so I didn’t know the “culture” of our other sites. But one can only guess. I saw very few women in outdoor jobs as welders, rebar workers, etc. Totally agree with you: working outdoors on construction takes physical and mental stamina in all kinds of weather. The dangerous probability of an accident that may occur, is always there. Even just walking around amongst construction debris or on uneven ground.

      Like

  7. Really enjoyed reading this and your insight and views of a huge construction project. As my partner’s worked in it for 40+ years and I spent three years working in the safety aspect of construction, it’s always interesting to read someone else’s perspective.

    Back in Australia, working on one of the dockyards, it was common practice for some of the men (usually Aussies) to smoke dope in their breaks. On another site, cases of beers (tinnies) were provided in an ice bucket.

    Even today, I get tales from my partner about co-workers smoking dope on site (usually Spanish/Moroccan). And while we both like a beer, it just doesn’t go with working in dangerous conditions eg scaffolding ten floors up. Can’t comment on the dope as we’ve never smoked nicotine or anything else.

    I’m another fan of the golden eagle, lovely touch.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Ah, another kindred spirit who toughed it out amongst the construction mess. It’s always great to talk to other women who have worked at/for a construction project. I certainly haven’t meant anyone else in person…yet after the job I described. Different world. I haven’t even described the problem of theft.

      Like

      1. Nothing like as permanent as yours. Because I worked in health and safety, site visits were part of the job (still got my hard hat), but I was office-based in central London. The work also involved nuclear, explosives, agriculture, gas, noise, blah blah, but for some reason construction sites were the only ones I can remember visiting. The women to really admire were the factory inspectors working in construction. You didn’t mess with them or they would close the site down. The last time I looked at the website, one of the ones I worked with had gone onto one of the big top jobs in the Health and Safety Executive.

        My partner also knows a couple of female painters here in Gib who have worked in shopfitting and new-build housing construction. Both British I might add as Gibbos tend to want office/shop jobs where they don’t get their hands dirty. I’ve worked with him as well, but that’s tended to be domestic paperhanging jobs.

        As for theft, my partner has more tools than a hardware store. What should be our kitchen in this flat is actually a tool store. When he took a toolbox to work he would always padlock it. Some toerags still broke into it to use his tools!

        Like

        1. Jean says:

          As you may know, a known type of theft is copper wiring which is valuable metal on the market.

          Like

          1. I didn’t but he does, copper wiring, copper pipework, cabling, anything with metal in it and power tools. In fact anything on a construction site!

            Like

  8. Girl Gone Expat says:

    Thanks for the link! I could definitely relate to what you are writing about. I stayed on site during construction and commissioning for a about a year. You can get all sorts of drama when very different people are isolated in a location for weeks and weeks, and when you mix drug abuse into it it can get a bit weird!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      I realize that some people have jobs where this comprises the majority of their careers –international assignments and moving their families along with it. It’s a lot after a decade of leading that lifestyle. I was only in that particular job for 3 yrs. since that was the length of the project. So kudos to you for making a go of it for multiple jobs or assignments internationally.

      Like

  9. Lani says:

    What a great post! My first job was given to me by my “step dad” and he was the foreman of the warehouse for a construction company. This job very occassionally allowed me to be on site when I was a teenager. Later, when I returned to Hawaii, I worked for him again, but with another construction company. He taught me how to drive a fork-lift!!! Then I did temp work out at Turtle Bay for yet another construction company, on-site and the drama between the contractors was something! Lots of swearing, gossip and they say women are bad, sheesh, yeah, right.

    What an exciting job you had. This sounds exactly like something I would have enjoyed.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Wow, we share something else in common -construction site workplaces and culture. However I could never be trusted to drive a forklift! I gave up my car driver’s license in my 20’s because I was never comfortable driving.

      I found it tough working at a very large construction site at certain times. I also had a 1.5 hr. daily one way work commute – 3 hrs. each day on travel for 3 years. I initially had problems finding appropriate applicants to fill the jobs that I supervised which was more on the documentation side within the headquarters office in a trailer. Several candidates were turned off as soon as they arrived at the site to be interviewed after they picked their way through mud, noise, etc. The guys who I worked in the office were primarily managers and supervisors so they were quite civilized vs. the field workers. We did have some Thai labourers –straight from Thailand as well as some from Panama and Slovenia. They were there because most likely the German engineering firm wanted cheaper labourers vs. Canadians.

      Prior to that stint, I worked with engineers for over a decade which is different in a pure office environment (consulting firm and later, a government agency). With them, they are primarily great as a professionals.

      But I learned a lot and most likely that job experience gave me the edge to fill my present position (govn’t but my employer manages all the municipal govn’t construction projects locally).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lani says:

        I love it. I feel like I could watch a TV comedy/drama about construction site shenangans. Yeah, the commute, it must have been taxing. I understand.

        Like

        1. Jean says:

          Someone like you could write a tv drama series. 🙂 It could have everything –love, tragedy, failure, joy and frustration.

          Liked by 1 person

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