This is a story about an experience I had at the Sheerness power plant, south of Hanna Ab. Sheerness Power Generation was built at a time when energy supply was being outstripped by demand, much of it from the US west coast and during the backside of a major construction boom in Alberta.
The area east of Sheerness has a very large coal deposit that would be used to feed this huge power production facility. The mine and the power generating plant would provide years of work for local Albertans and provide the American market with a substantial supply of cheap electrical power. This project was dovetailed with plant retrofits near Edmonton and the construction of the Genesee coal fired power generating plant.
Unions were pushing the limits of their influence and demanding more and more from contractors during the boom. They managed to keep pressure on contractors and labour negotiators because of the existing and pending work in Alberta but they did not see the impending disaster that was about to hit Alberta due to Pierre Trudeau and the Liberal Party’s, National Energy Program. The project that I was about to work on will give the reader some insight into the boom and bust cycle of Alberta construction.
I had just finished working on a natural gas compressor station near Burstall Saskatchewan and was looking for a job. I put my name on the union hiring board and soon got a call from the union Business Agent. I was told about a job at Hanna that is only two hours from my home in Medicine Hat. I was told the particulars of the work and agreed to take the call.
Hiring halls and unions
The hiring board lists all those who are available for work in a given trade. In the seven years prior to this project, unions were scrambling to find a worker with a heartbeat and would and did take on workers who had no skills but a friend of a friend to get them a job.
When the National Energy Program kicked in, investors left Alberta faster than a herd of wild horses. Alberta’s initiatives in the oil and gas industry would be nationalized and the profits used to feed Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.
Without investor confidence, projects that had the green light or in the design stages and financing started to disappear. Projects in the midst of construction stopped and were either shelved, downsized or re-bid.
The effects were more than devastating and caught unions and membership in disbelief. They could not understand the correlation between investments for investors and potential profit and how this balance affected investor participation. All the millions and millions of investor dollars invested were in disarray because of a communistic, nationalistic approach to a burgeoning industry.
Overnight, the union members started to return to their home bases. Hiring halls / boards that were empty for years across Canada were more than full, with thousands of names of willing but unemployed workers. Union halls were literally putting up sheets of plywood in their offices so all the names could be registered.
Those union members who were hardcore were unemployed for years and lost everything. The NEP spawned the non-union movement in Alberta as many unemployed realized that the correction had come and those who could not change or expect less were punished.
First day at Sheerness
I reported to work the following Monday as an employee of Bain Insulation. Bain Insulation was based out of Toronto. Alberta’s boom was attracting a lot of out of province contractor’s trying to get a piece of the action and new offices were popping up in Calgary and Edmonton with little regard to the quality of people available to manage these new sub offices. There was just too much low hanging fruit in the Alberta construction industry to worry about longevity. Just hang up a sign and the work would fall in your lap and longevity would be a natural outcome!
The new office manager at Bain’s Edmonton office was an insulator by trade and had field supervisory experience. But this person was better at selling himself than managing the company bottom line. I often refer to this type of person as one who is still too close to the shovel handle to be in management. At any rate, this person got the title of office manager and lead estimator.
Bain Insulation was the successful bidder on the Sheerness stack insulation contract. I had watched this behemoth of a stack being built two years earlier when I was in charge of the temporary building heating insulation contract for JK Campbell and Associates that was inside the actual powerhouse.
For those who are not familiar with stacks and how they work, here is a shortened version. The plant burns coal to make super heated steam that drives the turbines to produce electricity. The waste gases from burning coal are sent from the plant to the discharge stack via large blowers, through electrostatic precipitators to remove solids and huge metal ducts designed to manage the volume of waste gases.
Easy to spot
When driving by any coal fired power generation plant you will see a huge concrete stack. In the case of Sheerness, the stack was 478′ to the top. The height of the stack helps draw the waste gases from the plant and allows the winds to add to the draw and dissipate contaminants far from the plant.
But this concrete structure is not the actual flue for the gases. This structure supports and protects a steel liner or chimney that is the continuation of the ductwork from the filtration system and the generation plant.
We have to understand that the volume of superheated air coming from the plant is enormous. The heat has to be contained so there is no opportunity for corrosion and to protect the concrete from premature deterioration and heat stress.
The steel stack liner or chimney is not tight to the inner wall of the concrete and there is approximately five feet of air space between the steel liner and the inside of the concrete stack. This annulus is adding a cooling effect to the heat radiating through the insulated steel liner or chimney.
Building a steel stack liner
There is a lot more work involved when we think about placing a steel stack liner from near ground level to 478″. Boilermakers set up all the rigging, jacks and associated equipment used to raise each section or can from start to finish. They are also responsible for moving / aligning individual steel cans into place and welding them out as well as continuous hoisting until the project is done.
When the last of the concrete is hoisted and placed into the forms, the crane lifts hydraulic jacks to the rim of the concrete stack. These are anchored in place and heavy steel cables threaded through the device will be used to lift sections of the steel liner during the construction of the chimney.
I think Sheerness had 14 or more jacks equally spaced around the perimeter of the concrete stack. From that point, there are a number of hand operated chain falls positioned to carry a suspended wooden floor / working platform. In the middle of this floating floor is a round cut out that will be used to hoist workers and allow a man cage up to the floating floor level so workers can monitor and manage all the hydraulic jacks (winches) as each section is welded and hoisted into position for the next can.
The man cage is raised and lowered by a huge drum winch and cable and is capable of carrying three men at a time. This enclosed cage comes through the hole on the floating floor and the operator stops the man cage just above the floor allowing workers to step out and walk on the floating floor.
To sum up the construction of a steel stack liner, we just look at this procedure as if we were stacking soup tins. Push one can into the center of the concrete stack at ground level and attach 14 clamps equally around the perimeter of the can. Lift twelve feet and bring in can number two. Set number one on number two, make adjustments and dog in place.
Send the welders in and weld out the joint. As this process is being conducted on the inside, insulators are on a platform above the boilermakers on the outside of can number one, installing insulation. One can per day was the schedule.
I can’t remember the width of a can but I suspect it was close to twenty feet in width and ten feet tall or about 630 x (2) square feet of insulation coverage per day. As the work progresses, the cans start to snake up the concrete annulus and winch adjustments are needed so the cans do not rub the concrete structure.
Insulating a steel stack liner
There are a few simple steps to insulate a stack liner.
Install insulation weld pins to the shell to impale and secure insulation, five pins per 2’ x 4’ sheet of insulation. In this case, the pins were 14ga. and six inches long to accommodate the weight and the double layer of insulation
Impale preformed insulation and secure using insulation clips, one per pin and then install a second staggered layer of insulation to ensure all joints are covered, preventing hot spots.
Cover the insulated surface with poultry mesh to ensure the insulation does not fall off if there was a series of pin failures or should the stack liner rub against the concrete stack.
Use additional insulation clips to hold the poultry mesh and bend the balance of the pin over with a pair of pliers to prevent possible injury.
Twist the poultry mesh together using a cotter pin puller to stretch the poultry mesh and tighten it up any loose spots.
Any good estimator would look at this work and probably estimate overall production at 18 – 20 square feet finished an hour. This work would probably need a maximum of four men to complete one can in one eight hour shift to remain on schedule and profitability.
Be careful whom you hire
So now I am on site as a worker, but the foreman is missing in action. The crew size is an unbelievable eleven bodies. I asked around to get my bearings and was told the foreman had a girlfriend 40 miles north and only visited the job site on pay day. The workers had no leadership and did whatever they felt was necessary to complete a can a day. As the job production fell back, the foreman would make excuses and ask for more manpower. The inexperienced office manager must not have questioned his friend, the foreman, and continued to send men. There was just too much work available to worry about one job, low hanging fruit!
Finally the foreman crashed and burned on week three of my employment. The job costs were way out of focus and the workers were less than thrilled to be on the job. There was so much work available in the province that the workers would come and go as they pleased, no ambition or pride to improve and zero commitment to an employer. That was fostered by the arrogance of the union leadership. Everyone was riding the coat tails of the great Alberta boom.
The manager of Bain Insulation was already busy bidding mega work in Ft McMurray and was planning to be a force to be reckoned with in the industry.
I looked around and suddenly found myself the senior person on the project and the only journeyman. I mentioned this to the Edmonton office, as there was no one communicating with the manager. He didn’t take a breath and set me up as foreman.
Okay, I can handle this job. It is so simple to do and so repetitious that I told the manager he needed to find work for a few men. So much to his surprise, eight men left that day.
I went to work the next day with only two helpers. After a week of trying to improve performance, I dropped a helper. Now I was down to two of us.
I keep referring to the boom times and worker attitudes and performance levels. Workers did not take direction and were not afraid of being released because there was a lot of work and the union didn’t correct their manpower, as the demand for workers was heavy and constant. So now I have a helper who is making his own work schedule. I never knew from day to day if he would show up and we lived and ate in an onsite camp. Finally he showed up on Wednesday and we were done our shift on Thursday. Just in time to cash a cheque, however small, so he got his ticket home on Thursday.
The office called and asked for an update on Thursday and I was very honest. The next statement was: we will send you some men on Monday. No thanks was my reply.
Low hanging fruit
I told the manager that there was hardly enough work for one man, never mind a crew and he was incredulous. Then I finally got to tell him the whole story about this project and how he was played. This project could have been a hugely profitable and I have my suspicions that every contractor of the day had so much work that many did not bid this project.
On that note, I suspect the inexperienced manager threw a whole bunch of money at the bid to protect himself and his new position and still came out bidding lower than his competitors. When contractors are busy they move their profit margins up to avoid work or make it worthwhile or even trade information with competitors and collude with each other to manage their work and profits. I came up in an earlier boom and saw this first hand when contractors were building multiple natural gas processing plants in Alberta.
You get to analyze a lot of work with experience and if this person allowed eleven men on a three – four man project and wasn’t too concerned, he had to have a lot of cushion to work with.
Do it right
I don’t know how many cans I did myself but I was on the job for over three months and never worked seven hours a day. Then, as the last can was positioned and insulated, I was asked to do some repairs on the outside of the insulated stack liner. That meant I was to sit on a Bosun’s chair and I would be dropped on a cable by a boilermaker and do some repairs in near darkness while in radio contact. This would be quite an experience for me because I had to go to the top of the stack to get lowered down to complete the repairs.
No problem, I can do this and Bain Insulation was getting paid on a cost reimbursable basis so it was just more wages for me. What I did not know or expect was the upcoming surprise.
Practical joke comes in a strange form
I had got the respect of the boilermaker crew and we worked together to get the stack insulated if only tying material on for me to lift and install. I believe they felt I was uncomfortable with the thought of going up to the top platform on the stack and as a joke, set me up.
On that fateful day I went into the man cage with a third year boilermaker apprentice for the first time. Together we would execute the repairs on the steel stack liner.
The man cage went up and up and the daylight at the bottom of the stack became very faint. As I looked up I saw a pinhole of light and this is where the manbasket would slide through the floating work platform. Looking down as the man cage went up, things became almost black but there was sunshine above. The man cage suddenly cleared the floating floor and came to an abrupt halt. I opened the door of the man cage and surveyed the floating floor. Then I looked at the six-inch gap I would have to step over to get on the floating floor. It was going to be a hell of a step and it didn’t look much like six inches to me and I felt I could fall a very long way.
I took the safety lanyard and was about to latch myself to a safety cable set up for this purpose. As I reached for the safety line, the boilermaker apprentice pushed me aside and ran across the floor. With every step, the floating floor started to sway and soon was banging against the man cage. As I looked up from the floor, the apprentice jumped over the top of the concrete stack and disappeared.
Oh my god, what did I just witness?
As quick as I could collect my thoughts, I clipped on to the safety cable and stepped on to the rocking floor. I went as quick as I could to where I last saw the apprentice, fully expecting to see a blood spot on the ground, 478’ below.
I peered over the lip of the stack and there was this apprentice, laying on a suspended scaffold outside the concrete stack laughing at me. My god, they really got me that time.
I promptly picked up a large pipe wrench and dared the rat to try and come back over the concrete stack. In a few minutes we were sitting on the floor and laughing at the joke.
The view from 478’
It is amazing what a person can see from this height. I always looked around every time we went to the top and marvelled at the scenery, wildlife and ranches as well as nearby towns and the developing mine. The vista ran for miles in every direction.
There was one time I came down from the floating floor in great fear. I went up to continue my repair work but there was a humming sound I couldn’t put my finger on. It should be deathly quiet as there was no work or workers on the floating floor, but I heard humming. It was like one would hear in an old time horror movie or a farmers’ shop welder. As I tried to figure out what was happening, the hair on my neck, head and arms just went straight up and started to tingle. I only wish we had cell phones back then, A selfie would have been priceless as I ran my hands across the top of my head, inches away from my scalp! Then I looked around and saw a dark cloud about ten miles west. The electricity in the air was so intense; it was making a very loud humming sound. That is when I realized the man cage jib was the highest point on the stack . The jib and the cable connected to the man cage, which was constructed of steel as well and I needed it to get down to the ground quickly. That was the longest ride I ever had on that job but we are still around to talk about it.
Time to go
I was not much different from my fellow workers. I received another offer from my previous employer JK Campbell and Associates to be a General Foreman on a major project so I gave my notice to Bain Insulation. My next project would be a two-year project so I did not want to lose an opportunity. I left Bain with two small breechings that needed to be insulated and wished them well. I even suggested a person that was available for hire that could finish the project.
They asked how long the work would take and I suggested two weeks. A month later the manager from Bain Insulation called me. He said the union worker had been on the job for a month and had still not finished. They were wondering if I could come back and complete the job.
I had to refuse as I was well into my project. They did finish the stack insulation but it took the manager to sit on site to direct the work and a total of seven weeks.
This is what happens when there is too much work in construction and project costs go up because contractors see an opportunity to make more money and labour is not held accountable for production and performance.
There was a few of us who never suffered after the crash but saw so many workers who did not know how to work. There is still this legacy in the workforce today but management can only overpower projects with added labour to cancel out poor production. Too bad because it hurts everyone and the costs continue to rise.
Now investors and customers are leery of the costs and have attempted different approaches to build and construct major projects. Only a small percentage of these ideas actually pay off for the customer but this is the cycle we are in. There are not enough people throughout the industry who understand the philosophy of a days work for a days pay.
Bain Insulation became a flash in the pan. Too easy going and lacking experience, the company office in Edmonton took on too much work without out proper management controls. Then the bottom fell out of the market and contractors could not find work to bid and unions could not find work for their men and women.
Projects were canceled faster than the ink drying on the paper or contracts were torn up and re-bid while the project languished.
The worst part was the union labour. They had become so spoiled that they failed to recognize how companies survive in a tough market. Those workers who kept demanding the perks and high wages of the union found themselves out of work for years. Those of us who could see the give and take required to survive, found ways to stay employed. Pride has its limits when it affects your family.