The Hinton Pulp Mill Expansion

Client: Commonwealth Construction

HA Symons Engineer

 The Project:

My employer of the day secured the insulation and cladding contract for a major expansion and renovation at the Weldwood Pulp and Paper mill in Hinton Alberta.

This project came on line as the Co-Op Upgrader project was winding down in Regina. I started this project and flew between jobs until I was ready to leave Regina in the very capable hands of my friend and general foreman, D. S.

My history with my employer of the day  goes back to the days of JK Campbell and Associates. My employers were the upper management that left JK Campbell and Associates’ Calgary office when the company started to fail. This was my second project for this new company and my old department manager.

This was going to be yet another tough project. This was a union project and outside of the Calgary union jurisdiction so there were a number of steps that had to be put in place for a successful outcome.

Union Jealousy

This line in the sand was how each union held on to their assigned geographic areas. Projects were seldom a joint effort between sister union halls and the supply of project manpower was jealously guarded. This project was in the realm of the Edmonton based union hall and we were based out of Calgary. Although they were sister union halls, one would never have guessed by the attitudes that were observed. At any rate, I did exactly what I had done in BC, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I introduced myself with the Business Agent and went through pretty much the same spiel. In this case, I dropped into the Edmonton office and had a face-to-face discussion.

It is a fact in construction that one is only as good as their last job. I put my line in the sand and my reputation on that line every time I took on a project.

The Hinton project was a sign of the times. Engineering and design was usually at 80% before contractors started to bid on the work. The balance of engineering and design as well as procurement dovetailed with the incoming bid packages. This project was called a fast track project. It was meant to come together quickly to reduce income loss for the mill. Commonwealth and HA Symons were the best in the industry at the time and the building blocks continued to drop in place on time.

What Happens In Fast Tracking a Project?

 Fast tracking means a lot of coordination between trades. It also means less time from start to finish and this drives up manpower requirements to meet schedule. This project also had a local content clause, which meant my employer had to hire a percentage of local people.

The Best Deal

My employer could not negotiate out the local content clause because the first losing bidder was from Hinton. Instead of fighting a losing battle and possibly part of the contract, my employer negotiated a contract with the local contractor and gave them a specific piece of work at lump sum rates. Although a separate entity, I was responsible to ensure they were doing the work according to specification and on schedule. They were my subcontractor.

Difficulties Abound

 There were a number of interfacing difficulties and scheduling conflicts but we stayed on track and never fell behind. Sometimes the subcontractor had to be engaged but overall, it went well.

The greatest hurdle for the workers was dealing with stainless steel cladding. They were used to driving screws into aluminium but stainless steel was something new and different. Plus the fact that my employer introduced a new cladding concept and the workers were unfamiliar with the application. Getting by these hurdles made interaction with the Edmonton workforce easier. They had to follow the lead of the foremen and general foremen to keep themselves employed. We did not encounter any real labour problems on this project.

Still the mill has many levels and covered a large footprint. Logistically we spent a lot of time keeping men and materials flowing into the jobsite ahead of the manpower. Our total manpower was 104 craftspeople and three trades to make this project come together.  This project was one that taxed every worker. Long hours, changes in direction and conflict over access to the work. We were able to manage all these details so only the foremen and general foremen really felt the pressures. Each was coached to avoid the whining and complaining and taught to listen and put a positive spin on the problem.

One Bad Experience

Our manpower had insulated and clad a very long exhaust stack on the ground. It was to be erected in three sections by a very tall crane. At each connection, there was an open joint that required insulation and cladding to be completed in the raised position.   Because this was specialized work, we had a foreman and a helper work off a crane manbasket and complete these joints. The crane operator would be in radio contact with the workers in the basket and the general foreman on the ground. All the safe work procedures were identified and coordinated between the crane, general foremen and the workers in the manbasket. The first two joints went well and with the weekend approaching, we felt that this work would be done early.

On the third lift, which came Friday morning, there was an emergency call on the two way radio. There had been an accident at the stack and injuries were reported.  I hustled off to the work location and the accident scene was frozen but chaotic. Emergency personnel were attending to the insulators and then the ambulance sped away. OH/S was called and there was an officer on site within two hours.

An investigation followed, including a complete crane inspection. My workers suffered multiple contusions, a broken arm, a broken ankle and a broken back. This was an incredulous accident and nothing I had ever experienced before or after.

The Accident Investigation

My manager and the manager of the crane company were called to site for an emergency meeting by our client and OH/S. In the end, the crane company denied any responsibility for the accident. The crane was in perfect working order and the focus was not on the crane operator’s skills.

It was later suspected but never proven that the crane operator was in the camp bar the evening before and probably had too much to drink. He came to work Friday morning probably suffering from a hangover but thought if he scared the workers in the basket, they would refuse to work and then he, the operator could go home early.

That isn’t quite what happened. The crane operator lifted the men to the third joint and swung them into close proximity of the stack. Instead of stopping and allowing the insulators to tie to the stack, he swung the crane boom away from the stack and allowed the manbasket to free-fall. The unfortunate part was he underestimated the speed of decent and when he applied the brake, the man basket stopped so abruptly that tool boxes bounced out of the man basket, the men shot upwards and struck the crane ball, man basket cables and the hook, then fell back into the man basket. When the crane operator saw what he had done, he brought the injured men down to the ground for medical attention.

It was my general foreman who initially called for help, after he realized the man basket had been in a free fall.  The crane operator did not say much although he was thoroughly shaken.  I was told later on the project by the investigating OH/S officer that an error had occurred in not requesting a breathalyzer for the crane operator.  By then it was too late as the crane operator was being driven back to Edmonton.

My employer absorbed this accident on their Workers Compensation assessment for a whole year before the findings were published. In the end, the crane company was found negligent and assigned the penalties for the accident as well as allowing the injured workers to sue. To this day, the crane company will not work for my former employer.

Much of the credit for the quality investigative information goes to my general foreman C.W.  who was in charge of this work and at his station when this accident occurred. He immediately took steps to freeze the accident scene and interview witnesses. Not only interview but also record witness statements, take pictures  and document the events.

The camp bar

The (manpower) camp for this project was built across the highway from the mill. It was the second camp in Alberta to have a full service bar installed for the workers.  The hopes of the Owner was to reduce the opportunities for construction workers to drink and drive in Hinton and area.  I often think about this event as I want to believe everyone is responsible for their actions and would consider and use the bar facility responsibly.

The Claim

During the project we encountered a number of commercial issues.  Some of them could not be rectified during the regular contracts meetings and were tabled.  The schedule drove everyone to the finish line so bickering over dollars during construction was just not a good idea.

After we demobilized, our client remained on site to complete their business with the Owner.  My manager and I worked well together documenting the many issue that we felt we were not compensated for.  This list was given to our Contracts Administrator and he promised to look at the issues when he had time.

I received a call from my manager some six weeks after we left Hinton.  He instructed me to join him for a final sit down with our Contracts Administrator to sort out our differences.  We came back to Hinton and my manager must have been on a high sugar diet or had a bad meeting with the company president.  He was like a mustang on the prairie and wanted to show his office counterparts what a great negotiator he was.  Remember that the project had made the estimated profit margin and then some, so I wasn’t overly excited. My manager did tell me that the president of the company told him how much he had to settle for and that was his bottom line, so the marching orders were posted.

We entered the construction offices one last time.  After our cordial handshake, my manager was already at the Contracts Administrator.  He had his briefcase open, a fat file in his hand and was well into the claim before we sat down.  I looked at my manager in disbelief but who was I to interject. We sat around for about twenty minutes and had only compromised on one of 168 claim items.  The Contracts Administrator was sitting back in his chair, his legs crossed and sucking on his fifth cigarette.  My manager never stopped talking and finally the Contracts Administrator sat straight up and asked my manager if he was finished! I thought this doesn’t sound very good but kept my eye on both of them.

What happened next caught me off guard.  The Contracts Administrator asked my manager if he trusted me?  What the hell I thought!  After some mumbling and shuffling of feet, my manager said Yes.  Then the Contracts Administrator said, okay.  Now you can let yourself out of my office and Marvin and I will settle your claim! And shut the door on your way out!

Oh boy, this could go either way. Either my manager is going to let me proceed without his knowledge or the claim would end in court.

My manager reluctantly relented and left the office.  Then the Contracts Administrator shut the door to ensure confidentiality.

I always talk about open communication and honesty as your best offence and defence.  I built my working career on this simple analogy and this is another occasion where it paid off.  I always treated the Contracts Administrator as an extension of my part in the project and I always treated him with respect.  After a very short, are you ready to settle comment, we started.

I think it was the longest two hours my manager ever spent.  After making one compromising move on my part relating to a service truck that was damaged, we were on a positive roll.  All I heard was I thought your manager was looking for a new truck, but I explained the truck was used when it came to site and was already showing wear and tear.  Just give my employer half of what he is claiming.

Everything after that was just a matter of explanation, validity and justification of the costs and sign off.  I left the office with a handshake and an over the shoulder off hand remark to my manager from the Contracts Administrator about who was the best claims negotiator.

My manager was besides himself and wanted to know if I sold the farm.  He had been in touch with the company president while I was locked in the office and he was worried.  As we left the premises I showed him the number I negotiated on his behalf.  We didn’t make it past our favourite restaurant when I was instructed to pull in.  I think that was the closest I had ever seen the man to being inebriated by the time we left.  He was on the phone to the company president and gave him the good news.  I had settled for far more than the two of them thought the company could get.  Of the total claim value, less than 50% was actual cost to my employer.  I gave up 40 thousand dollars to end up with a claim payment of 680 thousand.

Just because you don’t own part of the company doesn’t mean you can’t work in their best interests.  But this is a double edged sword and in later years the appreciation was lost to expectations without reward.  This was the deciding factor to leave the company years later.

The end

Eighteen months ended a truly remarkable project.  The Owner had the plant operational with the expert design and installation by the Engineering firm and our workers played a key role. Zero deficiencies for my employer and another satisfied customer.

I visited the plant some eighteen years later and everything is still installed as we left it.