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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.