By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
A large dirt pit consumes the entire block of Van Ness and Geary, several stories deep, with what looks like landscaped rectangles at one end and mounds of dirt at the other. It’s the job of laborers to keep the site orderly, directing traffic, moving materials, digging holes, manicuring the dirt, cleaning the rebar and preparing the holes for the concrete pours. “Our job is to make sure everybody else can work,” said laborer Andre Jackson, an employee of HerreroBoldt, the project builder. Their job on this project was made more difficult by recent rain that turned the dirt into mud. But laborers like Jackson rose to the occasion, dewatering and demucking the site, using pumps and vacuum cleaners to support the foundation placements during the wet weather.
When completed, the Van Ness and Geary Campus of the California Pacific Medical Center will include a 12-story, 740,000- square-foot hospital and an adjacent 253,000-square-foot medical office building connected by an underground pedestrian walkway. Both buildings are scheduled to open in early 2019. The project will be LEED certified and designed to the highest standards of sustainability and water conservation.
On the Job Site visited with members of Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 261 employed by HerreroBoldt and trade partners Pankow Builders and Ryan Engineering.
–Voices From the Union–
Laborer, Ryan Engineering
I’ve been doing this for 15 years. The best part of it is working with men. I don’t let the guys give me a hard time, I give them one. Being a woman in the trade, and a small one at that, you need to have a lot of bark and a lot of bite. It takes a lot of heart and a lot of guts. I took everything I learned in life and applied it. I love it.
You have to have some good work ethics, male or female, because when you’re on time, you’re late. To do this job, you need to be here at least 15 to 30 minutes early, because everything changes when you leave here and nothing is the same when you get back. I want to scope things out and have a plan of action.
It takes a lot of communication and working together, especially with the other trades. For example the machine operators. I’ll be shoveling dirt and they know my movements and how I move around the dirt pile, and when he turns the machine he’ll move it in the opposite direction. We’ve been working together for 10 years.
I like working in the rain. I don’t mind getting wet, but it can be dangerous. It can be very slippery. Working in the water and the mud, the trick is knowing how to walk. If you don’t, you are going to slip and fall. Even in the sand when it’s dry you have to have a little finesse. It’s not like walking on flat ground. You have to know how to work your boots.
Laborers are a big part of any construction site. We keep the site going, making sure the carpenters, ironworkers, electrical workers, and other trades have the materials they need and a clear path to do their work.
I do a lot of cleanup. I go into the trenches, dewater the trench, demuck it, and make sure the site stays clean so they can put in the rebar, lay the electrical cables and place the concrete.
Dewatering is when you put pumps into ditches to remove the water. Sometimes you have to dig another trench to let the water drain out of the main trench.
To demuck, we go in with a vacuum cleaner to remove the muck, and after that with a dry vac to get it as dry as possible, and then clean off all the dirt and power wash the rebar and vacuum again after that. Everything needs to be as clean and dry as possible or the concrete can’t be placed.
It’s grueling work, but that’s what we signed up for. I like getting a good workout. Once you get through here you don’t even want to go to the gym. At my age, 47, it’s starting to take a toll on the body, but I love being a laborer. When we arrive at the worksite at 7 in the morning, there’s just a bunch of big empty holes in the ground. When we leave at 3:30, you see beautiful concrete slabs.
Laborer, Pankow Builders
The hard work really gets you going. Working with concrete can be tough. A lot of vibrating and long hours. Once the concrete pour starts, you can’t stop. I used to vibrate. Now I just make sure everything is all clear and direct the trucks.
The mud was a pretty big issue after the heavy rain. It was pretty deep, and you couldn’t work around it. It created a lot of issues for the trucks, and we were directing the trucks and had to make sure they weren’t going to slide in the mud.
You can’t just be concerned about your own situation; you have to watch out for everyone else as well. The cool part is you get to work with all kinds of people. I give the ironworkers a lot of respect, putting in all the rebar, and the carpenters as well for their work.
I live in Redding. It’s hard traveling and being away from home, especially when we have to work weekends. But I like knowing I’m helping out the community by building a hospital. That’s important to me.
Labor Foreman, Pankow Builders
It’s all preparation. The weather snuck up on us, but we’re prepared for the rain. I worked in Seattle where we had plenty of rain, so I know about doing concrete in the rain.
Safety is the most important thing when you’re working in the rain or mud. You need to keep your eyes open. Anything can happen anywhere, even where you’re walking. You have to watch what you’re doing.
We’re always communicating with the other trades and keeping an open mind. We’re all working in the same area. You can’t be working underneath somebody and you can’t be working on top of somebody. We have loads coming in from the street and cranes above. You have to really watch where you’re putting your loaders. There are guys working all over the site using horns to signal everyone that a load is coming into the hole and that they should be looking up for the load.
Laborer, Pankow Builders
On the one hand, we don’t mind the rain, because when it rains we get a lot of work. But when you work in the rain you get wet and muddy. It’s tough, but you just keep on going.
On this job we’re doing a lot of concrete and I’m running the vibrator. You shake a lot when you do it, and you get tired by the end of the day. It was hard at first, but I’ve been doing this for 19 years and I know the tricks. When I see the new guys doing something, I try to explain to them the easier way to do it so they don’t get as tired. We are a family here.
Laborer, Ryan Engineering
I’m a dirt guy. It’s fun making trenches. It’s exciting but you’ve got to know what you’re doing. You can get crushed if you don’t do it right.
Digging a trench safely takes planning before you even start digging. That’s why our union offers training on safety orientation, how to lay out the trench and use the equipment safely.
Editor’s Note: The union training classes are offered at the Northern California Terence J. O’Sullivan Training Center.
I like working in the mud and digging the water out. It’s messy but I don’t mind. I enjoy it.
By helping out the other trades we get to do a little bit of everything and learn a little bit about all the different trades as well.