Changing the Skyline
Walters Group & Ironworkers International
Please note: This article contains explicit material about Ironworkers, the unsung heroes of the construction industry and the professionals that steel fabrication and erection companies like the Walters Group depend on for their success. At high elevations and in Canada’s challenging climate conditions of 110 kilometre per hour winds, -40 Celsius temperatures, whiteouts and ice, they are getting the job done. Reader discretion is advised.
Founded in 1956, Walters Group is a family-owned steel construction company that designs, fabricates, and constructs commercial and industrial projects throughout North America.
Recently we spoke with three Walters Group employees who began their careers in the field as ironworkers and are now in supervisory positions with the steel construction company, which maintains headquarters in Hamilton, Ontario as well as an office in New York.
We also spoke with Darrell LeBoucan, Executive Director of Canadian Affairs and General Vice President of Ironworkers International. Like the Walters employees, he began as an ironworker, but instead of continuing employment in the industry, he now partners with companies like Walters to train and provide skilled ironworkers to execute designs in the field.
When we spoke with Walters Group Site Superintendent Marc Boucher, he was overseeing the refurbishment of the historic 1866 West Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. This is the coldest national capital in the world, even colder than Moscow.
“We work all winter,” he says, “and I’ve never stopped working in thirty-eight years. I’ve worked throughout Canada, the U.S. and Russia, and the winter doesn’t stop us unless it’s severe and creates problems for the machinery. In Edmonton, I was working on a bridge, and it was so cold that the diesel fuel in the cranes would ‘gel-up’ (become thick and viscous), and there was no way we could get them to work. So it does have its problems, but you don’t stop work, and you have to adapt. If you’re welding, you must preheat your materials, and you might have to create temporary shelters for the welders. When you’re erecting steel, the cold does slow down the production, and you have to be careful – there are slippery conditions; there’s ice; there’s snow, and there are whiteouts – but usually we do pretty good with many aspects of the cold.”
Perhaps one of the most concerning is freezing rain, which can cover the ropes and metal decks and ladders, and these must be de-iced before work can continue safely. “And if you’re using compressed air tools when it’s real cold, they tend to build humidity in the hoses, and then they get all iced-up, and you have to introduce methyl hydrate alcohol and get them cleared.”
Then, there is the constant freezing and thawing, which Boucher says does not affect the structure itself, but if the site has not been properly prepared, can create sinkholes where the machinery can become stuck.
“Or if you’ve laid out your steel on a nice +2 or +3C day when things were starting to melt and overnight it drops to -25C, and now everything is frozen to the ground, and you have to try to move it. And then there are snow squalls that happen when you’re trying to pull steel beams up 800 feet from the ground, and you have to keep the loads from spinning and hitting everything around it. So, it’s pretty interesting work,” he concludes with the wry understatement typical of ironworkers who tend to downplay the risks and challenges when talking about their work and instead just do it.
While Ottawa presents the expected cold and snowy conditions, refurbishing the West Block presents another type of problem – that of working in tight spaces. The entire refurbishment project includes the West, East and Centre Block – where the Peace Tower is located – and is expected to take twenty years altogether. However, the West Block is expected to be completed by September 2018, so the House of Commons can move there and refurbishment can begin on the Centre Block. At the same time, the Senate will relocate to the Government Conference Centre, also under Boucher’s supervision.
The West Block contained an atrium and a porte-cochère through which horses and carriages once entered. These have been taken down to the ground, stone by stone, and the foundation was redone. The ventilation, mechanical, security and computer systems have been modernized, and Walters is now completing the structural steel component, which involves tree-like structures that will support a glass roof.
“The site has a ten-foot high fence, twenty feet away from the perimeter of the building, so just bringing in these loads can be problematic because there’s not much space to put stuff down,” Boucher says of the job which he began in January 2016.
What kind of stuff? Pieces of steel, “some up to seventy feet long and fifteen feet wide, weighing 20,000 pounds, sometimes more, sometimes less, and we’re working with cranes, tower cranes, mobile cranes, all kinds of lifting devices. So, if you get a snowstorm or a freezing rain storm, it becomes even more problematic.”
Next, we reached Site Superintendent Glen Dobbs who was fifty-eight floors above ground, atop Calgary’s Bow Building, which Walters had erected earlier and where Dobbs’ crew were modifying window-washing units which had to be hoisted from the ground up. The eight-member crew has been working in two eight-hour shifts, while Dobbs himself works a ten- to fourteen-hour day. It was mid-autumn when we spoke, so the biggest challenge they were facing then was the wind.
“Mornings are windy here out west when the sun comes over the horizon,” he says. “The winds pick up, and we have to put things on hold for a little bit, so our cranes can swing and operate safely. On Tuesday, we had winds up to 110 kilometres per hour, and the workers continued with limited duties. We have to look at a range of precautions. Sometimes everything has to be tied off and secured.”
Temperature fluctuations caused by Alberta’s Chinooks also present challenges. “Right now, we’re at +12C; yesterday it was +6C, and I’ve seen fluctuations going from -12, even -20 up to +8 or even +10 or +12 in a twenty-four-hour period. Some days it’s -20, and it’s cold, and the next day it’s warm, and there’s fifty percent humidity, but you have to keep working and moving forward.”
Moving upward would be a more apt expression because in addition to the work on the Bow Building, Dobbs and his crew have erected the National Music Centre and the sixty-storey Brookfield Place, Calgary’s tallest building which required 18,000 tons of structural steel. “I’ve had a core group of ironworkers with me since 2014,” he says. “They’re a close-knit bunch. You get familiar with how one another works; you communicate well, and you like to keep them close to you.”
We also spoke with Bryce Mesley, Regional Construction Manager for Walters Group, who is based in Hamilton, ON. He told us about the logistical challenges he faced last year involving a diamond mine in the Northwest Territories. “It was a remote job, where the temperatures in the winter can stay as low as -40C for weeks at a time. In the summer, you must fly, because when you go that far north, there are no roads, just little islands, but the only way the steel can be taken in is during the winter on the ice roads.”
The steel, the cranes that had to be assembled onsite, and all the special clothing for the workers were flown from Hamilton to the Yukon and from there transported overland to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and from there on the ice road, a ten-hour drive to the job site.
“So, the trucks would make it there (from Yellowknife) in one day, get unloaded and go back for more,” he says. “As the ice season gets shorter, there’s less time to get all the required equipment in place. It changes every year. The year we were there, it wasn’t too bad, but we were told that the year before the ice road season was very short.”
And finally, we spoke with Darrell LaBoucan from his office in St. Albert, AB, where he oversees the Canadian branch of International Ironworkers which has 23,000 members who belong to twenty-one local unions. The organization was founded in 1896 with headquarters in Washington, DC and has a total of 183 local unions across North America with 130,000 members.
“What we’ve really expanded upon is our partnership with our employers or contractors in a labour management form,” he says, “to not only make ourselves more competitive but to make our contractors competitive. Without them, we can’t put our people to work, so we want to see them be successful, because the more successful they are, the more successful we are,” he shares.
“With private funding in Canada, we’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars into training, and we’ve built thirteen state-of-the-art training centres to train apprentices and retrain journeymen. We’re proud of that, but we don’t tell that story often enough,” he shares.
“All of the members are trained to Red Seal standards, which when it comes to certification is the gold standard. It’s a recognized certification on both sides of the border, so if you have a Red Seal in your pocket and you’re an ironworker, you can take your skills anywhere. All provinces don’t require it, but we felt if we trained to the highest levels in our centres across the country there’d be no discrepancies.”
In addition to their training, members are expected to adhere to the organization’s twelve standards of excellence, and “we expect our members to meet a certain level of commitment to contractors,” he says, “because a design could fall flat without the workers’ excellence.”
There is no question that Walters Group and Ironworkers International share a mutual admiration. Walters only hires unionized ironworkers, and its top management positions are held by employees who worked their way up in the field. According to LaBoucan, “Walters is such a recognized company and so well respected by ironworkers across the country that they’ll wait, even if there are other jobs available if they know there’s a job coming there,” he says.
“They have such a huge reputation across Canada that draws people to come and work on their projects, and that is from the ownership, down to the management, down to the way they treat their employees, their safety programs and their skill set. There are different levels of complexity to their projects, and they’re known for taking on some of the most world-class structures in this country. People look to that and want to be part it, so Walters has no problem drawing really good people because of their reputation.”
Just as the ironworkers appreciate working for Walters, Walters Group appreciates them in return. “We don’t often have the opportunity to highlight their incredible ethics,” Ruby Bowry, Marketing Manager at Walters Group states. “This feature is an excellent way to provide insight into what they do for us – rain or shine, snow or sleet.”