Collaboration Is Key
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Collaboration Is Key

Local 68 member Gerry Popoff discusses how a collaborative approach to getting the job done, navigating camp life, and ensuring everyone’s safety was the key to success for the Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project

By Lisa Helder

SINCE AUGUST 2021, GERRY POPOFF has worked as a driver on the Coastal GasLink (CGL) Pipeline Project, which was completed earlier this year. Last fall, while he was still on site, I spoke with Gerry about his experiences working on the massive project, life in the work camp, and being a steward.

Who do you work for and what is your job description?

I work for Ledcor Pipeline Limited as a driver. Ledcor sponsored me and I got my Level B-Provisional Folding Boom 10 Tonnes & Under crane operator ticket. I’ve got my loader ticket, and I can also run skid steer and sand truck.

But I wear many other hats here including serving as a steward and serving on the Camp Committee, Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee, and the Labour-Management Committee. I worked on the management side as a superintendent for a highway maintenance company for 32 years, so it was an easy transition to go from management to the union side of things with Ledcor. It’s a little different being behind the steering wheel instead of behind the desk, though.

Which do you prefer?

I’m getting onto retirement age, so I’m happier to be on the tools than behind the desk. Way less stress.

What does a typical day look like for you on the job?

We start at 6:30 in the morning, and we work 12-hour days, 6:30 to 6:30. We begin with a tailgate, prejob meeting, where the foreman reads out the daily bulletins, safety bulletins, and any news that we should know about. Then we all fill out a field level hazard assessment, which is a Ledcor-generated form where you write down your activities and what sort of hazards may be present and your controls for the hazards. The foreman signs those off and then we’re dispatched to go do what we need to do, and the foreman is there if we have any questions.

What kind of crew do you work with? How many of you are there working together at any given point?

At our peak, we had around 1,200 people on site. On our crew, we had about 25 people under one foreman, and that was about the max, so there are a lot of foremen on site. I’ve worked for about seven different foremen now.

What is the best part of your job?

Job satisfaction. Respect from management. Fantastic pay. The changing environment. It’s a different task every day. The work is not mundane. It’s challenging and keeps your brain exercised. Also, the work-life balance. I’m on a 20 and 10 shift rotation, so I work for 20 days and then have 10 days off. That allows for good work-life balance.

How do you work with different trades on the site and different types of operators?

Very collaboratively. Once you get to know everybody—and that really doesn’t take a lot of time—you get to know who does what and who’s good at this and who needs a bit of help with that. We all work together, whether it’s mechanical, machine operators, warehouse people, safety people, or engineers.

Everybody gets along. We work very closely with CGL inspectors as well. It’s very respectful. Everybody knows that they have to do their job right and they have to do it safely. There’s nothing out here that’s as important as safety.

Let’s talk about safety. What is the safety culture like on site?

It has been wonderful. Management has been really good at enforcing safety. We have safety people around all the time on site, checking up to make sure that the safety culture is there, which has been fabulous on this project.

What are some of the main safety issues that you have to deal with?

Driving is actually the largest one. People are transferring to and from the site driving the road. We’re dealing with a radio assist road channel, but it’s also a public road, so there are public vehicles using the road, but they don’t have radios, so we’re not able to contact them.

And we deal with other industries. We have loggers on the same road, and we’re all supposed to be using the same protocol. It’s been challenging a couple of times. We have speed limits, we have road monitors, so you do get disciplinary action because we’re on GPS as well. Once everything gets uploaded to the system, they will know who was speeding.

The radio assist road is 62 kilometres long, so it’s quite a ways. It’s all gravel with twisty turns and steep grades and steep banks going off the sides. And animals are prevalent on the road. We’ve had lots of bears. They’re the biggest animals that we’ve had to deal with.

We’re working around equipment. So, in addition to driving hazards, there are always pinch points and hazard areas. Ditches are being dug, the excavators are digging, moving material, moving rocks—you don’t want to enter the swing zone of an excavator. The walkways are not always even and nice. They can be rocky, steep, narrow, uneven, or loose.

What about environmental concerns? What are some of the biggest?

Working in and around streams and stopping dirty water from entering clean water is a challenge. We do lots of pumping. There are lots of hoses, isolation dams, sediment boxes, things like that to stop dirty water from entering clean water.

We have several hundred pieces of equipment on site, and things break down, hydraulic hoses do blow, so we do get some minor spills. We try to avoid anything that might cause a large spill. Anything over 100 litres would be catastrophic in the eyes of this project.

We make sure we do our pretrip inspection, make sure there are spill trays put under the vehicles overnight to catch the spill in case something happens. Every vehicle is equipped with an emergency spill kit and pads to soak up oils and antifreeze, which are detrimental to the environment.

And we have environmental monitors, both with Ledcor and with CGL, so they’re always on the lookout for any sort of infraction to the environmental policies. Everyone abides by it. Everybody knows you don’t throw your banana peel or apple core out because that invites animals to become habituated to an environment that they’re not used to.

We don’t interact with animals. We don’t stop and take pictures. We just let the animals be, doing their thing, and carry on. We don’t feed them or interact with them. We have a lot of bears, so bear spray is available at the warehouse, and every vehicle and every person should have a can of bear spray with them. We go through training on how to use bear spray, and you don’t actually get your canister until you’ve passed the course.

We have avalanche awareness training and all of the safety equipment associated with avalanches, including the transceiver, probes, shovels, first-aid kits. All of that is available at the warehouse as an avalanche pack.

We’ve had avalanches up here, but no one has been buried by one, and there haven’t been any near misses. We have avalanche technicians on site, and they use explosive measures to bring down avalanches. I was actually an avalanche instructor when I worked in highway maintenance.

What do you like about being a steward?

It’s been the most rewarding. It’s great to be able to help people navigate their way through the collective agreement, help them with their benefits, to know what is available to them and encourage them to take advantage. Many haven’t worked in a union environment before and don’t know what’s available to them.

I’m a huge proponent for RRSP contributions. I’ve been able to take my experience and help members put more money away into RRSPs, rather than just what’s offered through CLAC and Ledcor to help top things up and take advantage of the tax break.

What are some of the challenges of being a steward?

Dealing with those who thought the union was there to protect them from their own crazy antics. The project camp is a damp camp, so you’re allowed alcohol, but only in your room. But some people have taken advantage of that situation and went out in the camp area, and they created a lot of kerfuffle. They thought we’re there to save their job. But we’re there not just to protect their rights, but to keep everybody safe, to keep the job site safe.

People ask me, why do you want to be a steward? Well, it’s not for the money because it’s only an extra buck an hour, which is definitely not lifestyle changing. But being a steward, you can change people’s lives. Which is kind of my biggest goal—to help people get through the situation and help them into the future.

Tell me about life in the camp. What’s it like and what are the challenges?

Camp life is good, but it’s not for everybody. The meals are great—they have a lobster night—there’s an exercise room, and the beds are fine. It helps that I’m on the Camp Committee because I deal directly with the camp manager as well as with the committee members, and we work collaboratively, whether it’s on the menu or room cleaning or towels being changed on time. We work together and try to educate everybody.

But you have to be able to live away from home for extended periods of time. It’s difficult and challenging on relationships for sure. There are a lot of people up here that are either going through a divorce or they’re already divorced. People are breaking up with their loved ones. It’s difficult to be a father to your kids when you’re not there all of the time. It’s long hours away from home, and it’s not for everybody.

How does the camp life experience impact you as a steward?

As a steward in the camp, I’m a financial advisor, I’m a family counsellor, I’m a marriage counsellor. I help people through day-to-day issues that they’re having. It’s a challenging position and you have to be versed and experienced in a lot of different aspects of life.

Some people turn to alcohol, and that doesn’t help at all. Some people turn to drugs, and that’s even worse. There’s no easy, push-button solution to say, hey, now you’re working in camp, now your spouse has to understand what it’s like or your kids have to understand. That doesn’t work. It’s a lifestyle that has to be chosen by the entire family and then supported by the family. It’s not just up to the person who’s away or the person who’s at home.

If you have kids, it takes a whole group of people and a very good support network at home. At work, you need to have a support network and a social atmosphere with coworkers who you can speak with.

Do you find that some people end up leaving the camp life to try to save their relationships back home?

Yes, they do. A lot of people take their experience from the project and then transfer that as a life skill to work closer to home where they can be at home every night with their family. But they don’t make the same amount of money.

Any final thoughts?

I would like to thank CLAC, CGL, and Ledcor for the opportunity to work on this legacy project. It’s the first of its kind in North America. We’ve done some work up here that’s never been done before in Canada. It’s been a fantastic learning opportunity, and it couldn’t have been done without all three parties working collaboratively together.

Don’t Feed the Bears!

5 Reasons Not to Feed Wild Animals

  1. Animals have specialized diets, and eating human food can lead to malnutrition.
  2. Feeding wildlife can lead to animals congregating in large numbers, which can spread disease or parasites.
  3. A steady diet of handouts can alter an animal’s behaviour for finding their own food, leading to starvation when people are not around to feed them.
  4. Feeding wildlife can put you and them in danger. Animals become habituated to people and lose their natural fear, leading to conflict and animals being put down. Food thrown out along the road leads to a greater risk of animals being struck by vehicles.
  5. Feeding animals can cost you. It is illegal in many jurisdictions across Canada to feed animals. A BC judge fined a Whistler resident $60,000 (reduced to $10,500 on appeal) for feeding bears. A mother bear and her two cubs had to be put down as a result.

5 Animal Dos and Don’ts when Camping or Hiking

  1. Do bring all trash out with you, including biodegradable items such as apple cores.
  2. Do store your food safely, inside your backpack while hiking and in your vehicle’s trunk when camping.
  3. Don’t burn trash as food smells can remain, attracting wildlife.
  4. Do give animals lots of space. Use binoculars or the zoom lens on your camera. Never touch or hold animals.
  5. Don’t share photos of people holding or feeding an animal as it only encourages others to do the same.

Sources: bc.ctvnews.ca, vancouvertrails.com

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