By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
San Francisco is upgrading its emergency response capabilities as historic Pier 26 is being renovated to accommodate three fireboats. Pile Drivers Local 34 members are installing the berths, replacing the old wooden piles with steel piles. When Organized Labor visited the site, pile drivers were on a wooden float chipping away at concrete pieces of the old dock. Another worker was cutting off a steel pile with an oxy-acetylene torch as a crane barge supported the pile and guided it through the air and onto another barge storing all the construction materials.
One of the most complicated parts of the job involves the remnants of a railroad track that ran between the pier and the warehouses. The rail bed was lower than the dock and warehouse so the freight cars would line up with the warehouse doors and dock. Metal girders and decking will be installed above the old rail bed and a concrete slab will be poured flush with the old pier, spanning the space from the pier to the warehouse above the old railroad tracks, leaving the tracks in place.
It was an impressive operation, and the pile drivers enjoyed the challenge. The crew included about 10 pile drivers employed by Vortex Marine Construction, Inc. The entire job will take approximately four months to complete.
–Voices From the Union–
They are relocating the three San Francisco Fire Department boats to Pier 26, so they are renovating the pier and installing berths for the boats. We are removing the existing wood fender system that resides against the concrete dock and replacing it with steel piling. Then we are going to put in a steel bridge and expand the concrete deck to accommodate the Fire Department's boats and personnel.
We used a vibratory hammer to install the fender piling. Now we are cutting off the tops to be flush with the concrete deck of the existing Pier 26. We'll stick a polyurethane sleeve over the pipe and then place a cap on top and encase it in concrete, closing off the piling. In front of that will be a 6-foot in diameter floating fender where the boats actually rest against and moor.
Being a foreman, you get exposed to different jobs and different techniques for making everything happen. Each job has its challenges. This job has a lot of scheduling issues, because we have to travel off-site to pick-up all the different materials and products and bring them in on a barge. We have to go to Pier 96 with our crane and load them from the trucks to our material barge and then bring them back here. The logistics are pretty intensive.
Journeyman Pile Driver
It's been wonderful playing all day on the water. Today I've been chipping away. I like driving pile better than chipping, but I don't like to do the same thing every day. Here it is pretty much different every day.
Working on the water has its challenges. Like you're under the pier and you're going up and down with the waves, and then a big one comes and you can bump your head on the bottom of the pier. It's like that all day long. You always have to be on guard, but we all watch out for each other.
It's a little easier on land, but I like to change it up or I get bored doing the same thing.
I'm trying to get certified as a welder. I know how to weld, but I need to get certified. I've been doing the job for three years.
I came from wind turbines, which I'd been doing for 15 to 18 years. I was a lead tech running machines and running crews. But different companies would come in, and the last one played games with me. They didn't offer me a job and wanted me to take a pay cut.
I had quite a few friends who became pile drivers when I went into wind turbines, so I joined them.
Journeyman Pile Driver
I love being out here. There's always suspense, adventure, and something different. You have to look out, pay attention, focus, and be on point. There's been some close calls but we all know how things go down and how to pay attention so you don't get in a cold spot.
The waves come in and out and make the job a little rougher on everything, including the crane picks. Things can come off the crane if they're not connected exactly right and a wave comes in. You have to constantly pay attention. That is why we're always watching each other's backs. Two eyes are not enough. One guy can't see everything.
When you're on the float on the water and you get the motion of the waves, it's like riding a surf board while trying to hold the chipping hammer. You have to use your body to keep the hammer still and keep the tension on the work.
You can't get scared when you are out here. You gotta be positive. If you get scared and get a little weakness or shake your knees, that's it for you. But I'm a pile driver and this is how I've lived my life.
Apprentice Pile Driver
It's been awesome working outside and on the water. You're constantly using your body, using your hands, and learning new skills. You can use these skills anywhere. Pretty soon I'm hopefully going to be learning how to weld.
Today we've been chipping off the face and intermediate concrete underneath the pier. The hardest part is fighting waves and making sure you don't get smashed up underneath the pier with the rebar. That's the most exciting thing, looking after your buddies and they're looking after you.
Before this I worked as a roughneck drilling for oil, natural gas, and geothermal steam. It was a lot of fun as a derrick man. I was up in the tree and pulling in pipe.
This is more money and much better opportunity, plus I get to be in Local 34. In this union, everyone looks out for each other. I can see myself retiring as a pile driver.
Apprentice Pile Driver
We have great teamwork. The journeyman and my fellow co-workers have taught me a lot. Today we're chipping. It's a tough job. You're holding the hammer the whole time up above your shoulders. It gets tough. After a few minutes the hammer starts getting heavy and it is very loud. You have to use earplugs.
I like working on the water. Everything is different. When I'm on the water and on the boat I feel like I'm floating and moving. It's nice, I like it. It's like surfing. You just kind of brace yourself and make sure not to fall in. Your calves are sore by the end of the day.
I can't wait for the future to see what it brings. I want to get into welding. I used to see people welding and I never thought I'd actually get to do it. I can't wait.
Deck Engineer, Operating Engineer Local 3
These guys are phenomenal. They don't quit. I make sure everything is running, oiled, fueled, and ready for them to go.
The chainsaws are the hardest thing to maintain. You have to sharpen it and make sure it has oil and fuel. You got to keep up on it. They are cutting through all kinds of stuff: steel, nails, wood, whatever.
The pile drivers are a good bunch of guys. They jump in wherever it's needed. What they do is not defined by a particular job. If something needs to get done, everybody piles in and gets it done.
Journeyman Pile Driver
Today we're doing the pile cut off. In some cases, we have 20 or even 30 feet of pile sticking out above grade because they ran into the concrete below. We do a rough cut first and then a second cut to get it exact.
We have the wind and the surf to contend with. So you do a jagged cut all the way around and that way the pile stays where it's supposed to instead of shifting loose and splitting out on us.
The cut is like teeth that fit on top of each other so that when you finish with the cut, it does not come out on you underneath, which is very possible if the crane isn't set up exactly right. The crane operator keeps enough tension so it won't fall. If the bottom kicks out while we're still down here or spins away from the pile, it is very easy to lose a leg or get knocked in the water, or worse, get knocked onto the railroad tracks.
It's like cutting a tree. If your cut is in the wrong direction or you're standing in the wrong space, you can get munched.
We cut the backside first. That way if anything happens, the pile will fall away from the building. If we cut in the front first there's a chance the pile could fall into the building, which would do a lot of damage that our company would be required to pay. So everything we do is geared around keeping the building safe, keeping us safe, and getting the job done.
That's why we have a buddy system. You almost never see one guy by himself doing something. One guy's doing the work and the other guy's watching and making sure that everything stays safe. The most important thing is everyone going home with all their limbs.
It's definitely one of those things where it requires a bit of skill. I've been doing this 15 years and I love it. There's a lot of math and a lot of strength involved. I'm a big guy and I get to have a workout.