Close Quarters
/ Author: Lisa Pranger 2311 Rate this article:
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Close Quarters

On a vast site in the Prairies, workers must safely navigate around heavy equipment, pipes and parts, and each other

 

Rising out of the Saskatchewan plains is a massive multi-coloured tangle of pipes, steel, and lumber interspersed with cranes and buzzing with activity. Welcome to the K+S Legacy site—the first new potash mine to be built in Saskatchewan since the 1970s.

With nearly 2,000 workers, the K+S Legacy Project is an enormous undertaking, requiring intense coordination, cooperation, and a strong commitment to safety and quality. Over 400 CLAC Local 151 members from three different companies—Kiewit Energy Construction Co., ULC, Ames Construction Canada, and Canonbie Contracting Ltd.—are working on various parts of the project, located about an hour’s drive north of Regina.

With work in the oilsands slowing down, many construction workers are making their way over to the Legacy site. They’ve spent years working on megaprojects in the oilsands, such as the Kearl Oil Sands Project, and are not strangers to the realities of work on a large site and camp living.

“This is the first mine that I’ve worked at—I’m usually in the oilfields,” says Mike Lipsack, a heavy equipment operator with Ames. He is part of the crew constructing berms around and baffles inside the cooling ponds (baffles increase the retention time and create desired flow patterns). “It’s different but it’s not different, if you know what I mean. I’ve never built a baffle in my life and now I have.”

Of course this site has its own challenges and differences, some of which are specific to each company, and others that are faced by all CLAC members on site.

 

The Project

The Legacy potash project is a solution mine, rather than an underground mine. The main infrastructure seen above ground is for processing the potash that is drawn from the ground through well pads. In these well pads, two holes are bored down to the seam of potash. Hot water is pumped down to dissolve the potash, and then the brine is pumped out and sent to the main facility for processing into potash pellets (see page 27).

CLAC members on the project are involved in the concrete work for the foundations of buildings and well pads; installing mechanical, piping, and electrical in the mill; and the earthworks to prepare the ground for the cooling ponds as well as a 16-kilometre rail-spur.

 

The Concrete

All good projects need a good foundation. The 75 members employed by Canonbie at Legacy are responsible for the concrete work for foundations of several large buildings and several well pads. Most of the members are heavy equipment operators, carpenters engaged in form work, and labourers. They’ve been on site from early on, and have been watching this extensive complex rise from the ground in the middle of the prairie.

“I look at this all here and think, wow, how do you organize something like this?” says Rich Piercy, an equipment operator from Bragg, Alberta. “It’s incredible. And I’m here right from the ground up, watching it come to life.”

As the site has grown, so have the number of challenges associated with coordination and safety. Those who work on the well pads had the advantage of open space and no congestion. But those who work on the main site on the buildings must be on the lookout for the many machines, companies, and workers all operating in a tight area.

“So many people walk around with their heads down,” says Rich. “We need a spotter for the equipment operator because people don’t watch where they’re walking.”

It’s not just hazards on the ground, but hazards overhead too.

“It’s a big site with lots of workers and a lot of huge lifts—huge cranes on site and a lot of overhead work,” says Nicolas Kroetsch, a journeyman carpenter with Canonbie from Lacombe, Alberta. “But the outlook toward safety here is really positive. It’s safety first.”

For Fred Martens, a steward and labourer from Saskatoon, the safety-first attitude and general camaraderie are key.

“The crew here is like a family—all the way up to the managers,” says Fred. “You’re not just a number here; you’re a part of the family and you’re there making changes to make things better. For example, we have a wall with our pictures reminding us why we work safe and why we want to get home safe.”

 

The Mill

Above Canonbie’s well-laid foundations rise many buildings for processing and storing the potash. Members employed by Kiewit are responsible for the mechanical, piping, electrical, and instrumentation on three buildings that turn the potash brine into potash pellets.

The facility is divided into a wet end and a dry end. The wet end is where the majority of the water is removed to produce a paste. The dry end is where the paste is dried down to a powder, or cakes, and then packed into pellets, which are then sent via conveyor belt to two large wooden storage buildings.

The main challenge is the close quarters and the special care members need to give to the material they are handling.

“It’s like building a ship in a bottle,” says Karson Berjian, a construction manager with Kiewit. “You have very limited ways to get items into the building, and there’s a lot of volume of things—pipe, spools of cable, lighting, mechanical components—that all need to go through small access points. The closer you get to completion, the more congested it gets inside.”

To add another layer of complexity, workers must be very careful not to scratch any components, such as the structural steel and pipes. Because potash is corrosive, all the metal in the buildings is coated with a special paint. Workers can’t grind or weld to the existing structure—everything needs to be bolted on—and pipefitters have to carefully put the pipes in place. Any time the paint is scratched, it must be noted so that someone can come in and touch it up.

Along with the challenge of the tight confines for people and material, working in close quarters with other companies who do things differently and follow different safety procedures is also challenging.

“I’ve been with Kiewit for almost three years now, and all the jobs we’ve been on, we’ve been the primary contractors, so we’ve had control of the whole area,” says Robin Baert, a steward, journeyman electrician, and craft safety advisor with Kiewit. “It was the Kiewit standards that were put in place. Here, the standards of safety and housekeeping are not the same with many of the other contractors.”

With all these companies working in close quarters, coordinating work becomes important—and sometimes difficult. But this is typical on many large projects, and so the members deal with it is as best they can. Many CLAC members have put their experience working on large, complex projects in the oilsands to good use on the K+S Legacy Project.

 

The Earthworks

Over 90 members employed by Ames are responsible for the earthworks for the cooling ponds as well as a 16-kilometre rail-spur that will wrap around the main site and connect it to the main rail lines. Most of the members are heavy equipment operators driving belly scrapers, rock trucks, dozers, backhoes, and other heavy equipment; some work as light equipment operators driving packers, tractors, and water trucks; and the rest of crew are labourers.

The members working on the rail-spur have the advantage of working in a wide-open space, far from the main site and other companies.

“It’s a little less stressful out here away from the plant,” says Matt Zimmerman, a heavy equipment operator and foreman from Vernon, BC. “I really enjoy working out here.”

“The main challenge is the poor soil quality, which makes it hard to get the right density,” says George Croft, who is responsible for safety for Ames.

Workers are also required to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and gloves at all times when they are working on site as a safety measure. While it’s not much of a bother for 10 months of the year, when it’s over 30° C in the summer, working in the sun becomes very uncomfortable.

Despite these annoyances, the atmosphere on site is still strong.

“The people I work with are great,” says Caitlyn Thomas, an equipment operator from Craven, Saskatchewan. “It’s a lot of fun. And I basically get to 4X4 all day so it’s pretty sweet.”

 

Challenges

With each CLAC company working in different quadrants, most members don’t necessarily have a lot in common, other than their CLAC membership and, for most, the realities of living in camp.

“The camp isn’t bad—every room has its own washroom,” says Evan Hodgson, a foreman equipment operator with Kiewit who is from Shellbrook, Saskatchewan. “It’s pretty new. But it’s still not home. My wife is 34 weeks pregnant, and it’s hard to be away from home and not be able to help her every day—walk the dog, do stuff around the house.”

On top of being away from home, CLAC members have had to deal with open hostility from members of some of the other unions on site, who don’t take kindly to having CLAC or any other companies not affiliated with their unions on site.

“It takes me back about 10 or 15 years when CLAC had to deal with that in Alberta,” says Robin. “CLAC is fairly new here in Saskatchewan, so all of the growing pains that we had in Alberta, we’re starting to experience all over again here. Some of the shirts that members of other unions were wearing were very negative toward us—almost harassment.

“You wouldn’t see any of our members wearing something like that against them—we’re just here to make a dollar; we’re here to work. We have no problem getting along with them. It just seems to be a few of them that have a problem getting along with us.

“They got over it in Alberta. When I was working at Kearl a few years ago, we all worked together—CLAC, guys from the other unions, non-union guys. If we knew they needed something, we would leave it for them to use, and vice-versa.”

Unfortunately, that level of maturity has yet to be reached by some on the Legacy site. But Local 151 members have kept their cool, which is especially important with the site’s zero fighting policy. K+S stepped in and banned inappropriate attire and hostile actions directed toward any workers on site.

The complex nature of working on such a large project in close quarters requires intense coordination, cooperation, and a strong commitment to safety and quality. It requires all workers—no matter what their background, origin, or union affiliation—to work together civilly to complete the K+S Legacy Project safely and on time.

 

LEARNING ON THE JOB

There’s never a day that you’re not learning, and that’s the best part about this job. There’s a variety of levels of experience, and it’s great to have more experienced operators serve as lead hands to help the newer operators.

When I was growing up, I didn’t have a whole bunch of people to learn from. I had my dad and he’s the one person I learned from until I started working with these bigger companies, when I had a lot more mentors teaching me. With one person mentoring, you only get one set of eyes, so being up here in the bigger company, you get a lot more eyes looking at you, correcting you. You learn how to improve from a variety of people.

—Matt Zimmerman, heavy equipment operator, Ames Construction

WHY ELECTRICAL?

I love getting my hands on pretty much anything electrical. I started at a young age with cars—I like taking things apart, seeing how they work. And if it works when you put it back together, even better!

—Justin King, first-year apprentice electrician, Kiewit Energy Construction Co.

STANDING UP FOR OTHERS

I’ve been in and out of construction for 30 years. When I first started, it was almost unheard of to have women in construction, and we weren’t treated very well, so I’ve had to fight pretty hard for everything that I wanted in this career. It’s taught me how to fight for myself and how to stand up for myself.

I wanted to be a steward because people are not always heard—especially young people who aren’t aware of everything that’s going on and what their rights are. I like to be able to support them, because I have a lot of experience being a voice for myself.

—Raven Eagleye, steward, journeyman carpenter, Canonbie Contracting Limited

FROM HONDURAS TO SASKATCHEWAN

I was born in Honduras and I came here when I was five years old. I needed an operation on my foot, so my mom got help from a church group to bring us and my sister here. The doctors in Canada saved my foot. In Honduras, if they can’t fix it, they cut it off. My mom didn’t want that for me.

We landed in Kitchener, Ontario, and then we moved to High Level, Alberta, where my mom met a Mennonite farmer who was visiting a friend. They got along very well, and we ended up moving with him to Osler, Saskatchewan. He had a dairy farm and so we grew up dairy farming with the Mennonites.

Before coming to work with Canonbie, I was a sauté chef for Milestones Restaurant. We were one of the busiest Milestones in Canada. Working there as a sauté chef was like being in Hell’s Kitchen because it’s the toughest station on line.

Working here is a nice break from all the stress and burns and yelling—there’s no yelling here.

Here, I do a variety of jobs. I drive the crew around and drop them off. I go in the city to service vehicles, do deliveries, or pick up supplies. The mechanic often needs parts and that’s a priority because if he doesn’t have the parts, he can’t work. I also do the cleaning. There’s always something to do.

—Fred Martens, steward, labourer, Canonbie Contracting Limited

NOT A SAFETY COP

I’m an electrician by trade and have been for 17 years. Here, I’m a craft safety advisor. I’m not a safety officer. I’m not a safety cop. I’m not out there looking to write people up and get them in trouble for doing unsafe things. I’m an advisor. I’m aware of the policies that the company has as well as our contractor, and I help the guys understand the things that they might be doing that are unsafe.

We find that by having craft safety advisors, rather than safety officers, the guys are more receptive because they know that I know where they’re coming from because I’ve worked on the tools for many years. When you have a safety officer come by, nobody wants to move until the safety officer’s gone because they’re worried about getting in trouble or getting written up, but we don’t have that problem as CSAs, so it’s really helped Kiewit become one of the safety leaders in the industry.

—Robin Baert, steward, journeyman electrician, Kiewit Energy Construction Co.

BEING AWAY FROM HOME

I’ve got a family back home. It’s lonely working away from home, but you’ve got to go where the money is. There’s more money out west than back east in Harbour Breton, Newfoundland.

I read a story where a guy was leaving home to go work in the oilfields, and he said the saddest thing he ever saw was when he backed out of his driveway that morning. He had kissed his kids that night and put them to bed, he kissed his wife goodbye, and while he was backing out of the driveway, his dog was in the window watching him.

I live in the camp and one challenge is that you have hundreds of people around you all the time, unlike back home where you can sit down for a meal just as a family.

—Ron Skinner, journeyman carpenter, Canonbie Contracting Limited


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