Boilermaker toughs it out amongst boys’ club
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So what does a boilermaker do? The answer is obvious, but then also it isn’t.
Yes, welding involves applying a torch in order to join two pieces of metal. This is clear enough, but it leaves out 99 per cent of the metallurgical knowledge, physical endurance and dexterity involved, and all the things that can go wrong.
Most everyone has seen the work represented on screen, but usually from a distance: the intense light, the shower of sparks, and the silhouette of the worker, looking a lot like a helmeted Boba Fett who swapped his blaster for an acetylene torch.
The general public has no insider knowledge of welding work, but not because the trade swears its members to secrecy — the Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers Local 191 isn’t about to go after former member and B.C.-based author Hilary Peach for revealing what happens up close to that burning light and molten metal.
The work is arcane because it occurs out of view — in shipyards, steel mills and remote oil refineries — and because worksites are often dangerous and inaccessible, hundreds of metres up or deep in industrial smokestacks, wherever there is something metal to build or repair.
This was meant to be “a book about working in the trade, not about being a woman working in the trade,” the foreword explains. And to a significant extent, Thick Skin is that.
The reader learns about the many types of torches and metal as well as the surgically precise angles and temperatures needed for certain welds. Peach draws on two decades as a welder working jobs across Canada and the United States. She is not an outsider to either the culture or the craft.
But being the sole tradeswoman on a job among several hundred men, as was often the case, also meant Peach had experiences her male counterparts did not. These could include acts of aggression that were sometimes subtle and other times horrifyingly violent. And they could include moments of unexpected kindness and quiet support.
It stands to reason that any line of work that regularly involves living in a camp far from civilization with hundreds of co-workers for months of 70-hour weeks will develop a pretty intense and unique culture of its own. Those who want to last in the field are forced to adapt to the social rules of the group as much as the physical and mental demands of the job itself.
Peach doesn’t describe this culture as toxic, but it’s not exactly healthy either. The book is past its mid-point before the title phrase is first uttered, although the unquestioned need to tough it out forms a thematic throughline from the very first pages.
After a few dozen chapters describing about as many jobs, the author reflects that having become inured to an environment in which a certain amount of emotional abuse is, if not encouraged, at least expected, is not without its costs.
“Why do I need to have thick skin? Why can’t you just act like a human being?” Peach firsts asks this as a young apprentice. As an old hand about to retire from the field, the question becomes less accusation than aspiration.
As someone who has loved the work, sees the artistry and honesty of it, this is simply a hope and an expectation that the industry can and will get better. And happily, it already has.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.
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