THE STRUCTURAL steel worker, like the Freemason, is taught to be cautious, and that is as it should be, for in a manner of speaking they are fellow craftsmen working for the same Architect. The men who claim steel as their mother are tough, hardbitten, with beamy shoulders, corded arms and powerful, spatulate hands. Their faces are strong, for a weakling is never initiated into the order, and their eyes, level and steady, seem always focused on far-away things. They walk w-ith curious deliberation as though the earth underfoot were no wader than an eight-inch girder, and they talk grudgingly, as careful with words as they would be with red-hot rivets.
They are most grudging when the talk turns upon the danger of their calling, most generous when it concerns steel. Steel, you gather, is not an inanimate thing. It is a power, a force, a god to be faithfully served.
I had always supposed that the steel skeleton of a building was something like scaffolding—necessary, but relatively unimportant compared with, say, the stonework. It didn’t take long with structural steel men to realize my mistake. To them steel is the building, and all the rest—floors, ceilings and walls—are just superfluous decorations added afterward to satisfy the whims of the tenants. When a structural steel man looks at a skyscraper I don’t believe he sees the stonework at all ; I believe he sees only a spidery network of stanchions and girders tapering away to the clouds.
The Front Line of Steel
STEEL begins on paper. When plans for a building have been approved, the draughtsmen plot out to scale every piece of steel which will be used. On their plans they mark even the rivet holes. When the steel has been fabricated according to these plans, shipment to the building site begins. And trouble.
There’s a skyscraper going up—in downtown Toronto, let us say. An excavation has been made, sixty feet deep, to bed rock. The steel is rolling in faster than it’s needed and there’s no place to put it. Trucks jam the street. The hoistmen sweat blood. The building superintendent becomes luridly loquacious. Everything is in a blind, chaotic muddle —until the structural workers get busy. And they solve the problem of where the steel’s to go by running it up almost as fast as it is received.
Structural workers are divided into three groups. There are, first of all, the connectors who place the steel in ]X)sition and bolt it in place. They are followed by plumbers-up, who, with wires and plumb lines, check the squareness of the framework. Lastly come the rivetters.
On all big construction jobs there are several gangs of rivetters. A gang comprises a rivetter, a bucker-up, a catcher and a heater. Supervising the gangs is a rivet boss, and serving them is a rivet monkey.
These are the structural workers; the men you have watched as they went about their business, ten, twenty, thirty floors above the street. They do the actual building —they are, if you like, the front line of steel—and, like all front-line troops, they are dependent upon lines of communication. The most important link in communication is the derrick, for it is the derrick that brings up the steel from the street level and places it in position.
On a big construction job a number of derricks may be used, each operated by a hoisting engine at street level. The man in charge of the hoisting engine moves the steel about with uncanny precision, yet he rarely ever sees it. He takes his instructions from a signal man above who directs him by means of a bell.
Trucks complete the lines of communications; they carry the steel from the works or the freight cars to the building site. Even that is not as simple as it sounds, for each separate section of steel has its particular place in the building and must be delivered in the right spot at the right time. Obviously if the steel were just dumped in one big heap and sorted out afterward there would be endless confusion; so to avoid this it is sent to the job as it is needed, floor by floor, and the truck driver is told at which derrick to deliver it.
Like a Jig-saw Puzzle
"\\7E HAV E reached, let us say, the tenth story of our skyscraper. The floor is roughly planked. On this there are massive sections of steel which have just been hauled up from the street below by the derrick covering this side of the building. The connectors, two to a derrick, are waiting to bolt these sections into position.
The derrick swings inward. A man catches its tagline, drags it toward a steel stanchion which, when it is placed in
position, will help support the floor above. The end of the derrick cable is hooked to a sling which has been placed around the stanchion. As soon as it is secure, the signalman gives two rings on his bell and the stanchion is swung slowly out to its position, w'here the connectors are waiting to join it to the stanchion below.
The sections of steel which form the framework of a building are made with such precision that they fit together like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. A stanchion, for example, when it is lowered into position, fits between two plates projecting from the stanchion below, and fits so exactly that rivet holes in the plates correspond with rivet holes in the flanges of the stanchion.
The connectors join one section to another with bolts, which are put in only fifty per cent of the holes. These are replaced later on by rivets. The plumbers-up follow the connectors to make sure that the skyscraper isn’t going up like the tower of Pisa with a cant to one side.
And then come the rivetters.
The key man in a rivetting gang is the heater, for the pace at which the others will work depends upon his ability to keep them supplied with red-hot rivets.
His equipment consists of a
portable furnace, a pair of tongs and a supply of rivets. When a rivet is needed, he grabs one of the desired length from his furnace with his tongs and tosses it to the catcher. The catcher, who may be balanced on a girder a dozen feet away, is armed with a tin can shaped somewhat like a megaphone. In this he catches the rivet, which he takes out with a pair of tongs and places in the hole ready for the rivetter.
A rivet, if it is to be of use, must project beyond the hole one and a half inches—no more, no less. This projection, when it is hammered down by the concave head of the airrivetter, makes a button of the correct size.
The rivetter and the bucker-up work in partnership. The bucker-up holds a length of steel known as a dolly-bar against the head of the rivet while the rivetter with his machine bangs away at the opposite end until he fashions a button-head on that, too. Not only is a head formed, but the shank of the rivet is expanded by the terrific hammering it receives so that it is tight and immovable in the hole.
All this sounds very simple perhaps and not at all hazard-
ous an easy way of earning $1.10 an hour, which is what structural steel workers get. But ten stories above the street it doesn’t look nearly as simple as it sounds, and there are hazards enough to frazzle the nerves of even a movie stunt man. All sorts of hazards.
Steel men pride themselves on bucking the weather, which is a pride partly inspired, I suspect, by contracts with penalty clauses. They will continue to work with a subarctic gale blowing when groundlings like you and me feel that we’re doing something heroic if we walk half a dozen blocks. They will work until the air line freezes, until their hands are too numb to hold tools, until they forget even caution in the stress of their struggle.
“I remember ...” said W. H. Butler, a Worshipful Master of Steel, and told me a story.
A rivetting gang was working on the fifteenth floor of a skyscraper. It was midwinter, there was a nor’wester blowing and the mercury was flirting with zero. The rivetter and bucker-up were straddling a girder that
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projected several feet beyond the temporary floor. Between them was a stanchion.
The catcher, a green man, was standing a couple of feet away, near the edge of the floor, which ended unevenly with a crazy zigzag of plank ends. In order to catch rivets thrown by the heater he had to face inward, then swing round and slap them into the holes beyond and above him.
What happened took only the split fraction of a second. The heater lobbed a rivet high and wide. The catcher stepped back too far for it—stepped on to the end of a short plank projecting beyond the steel that started to up-end like a seesaw.
He should, by all the rules, have followed the plank to the street below, but the rivetter had seen the beginning of that false step and as the plank shot downward he threw out an arm and caught the catcher under the armpits.
He was strong, this rivetter, but it needed courage as well as strength to hang on to 200 pounds of deadweight with only the purchase of his knees against the girder, and with a sheer drop of 200 feet to the pavement below. The temptation to let go must have been terrific, for the wind, which had numbed him before, tore at him now like a thousand furies, trying to shake him loose from his hold. But he did hang on until help came.
“Bridge Work is Safer’’
STRUCTURAL workers live always under ^ the shadow of fear, but it is fear for the safety of others, not for themselves. They are afraid of dropping thing—tools, driftpins, rivets—which, with the velocity gained from a high drop, might kill people at street level.
The tool against which they are always on guard is the drift-pin. A drift-pin is shaped something like a steel bullet, but it is tapered at both ends and in the middle it is exactly the same diameter as a rivet. It is used for enlarging holes through which rivets will not pass.
The method of its use is this: one end of the pin is inserted in the hole to be enlarged, and the rivetter bangs it through with his machine. The bucker-up, wearing heavy gloves, waits on the other side to catch it. Usually he succeeds, but sometimes the pin comes out of the hole with such force that he is unable to hold it: then, if it flies beyond the edge of the floor, there is the possibility of trouble.
The attitude of a steel erector toward the risk he himself runs was naively explained to me by Mr. Butler, who is general superintendent for The Dominion Bridge Company.
“Most structural workers,” he said, “like bridge work best because it’s safer. You see, if they fall off a bridge there’s nothing more to worry about, but if they fall off a building they may land on a floor two or three stories down and be badly injured.” He was silent for a minute or two, very serious and thoughtful. “Yes,” he went on, “I think you can say definitely that bridge work is safer.”
But although the structural worker is not much concerned about his own safety, he has plenty of other worries. He speaks despairingly sometimes of being chased to the top of the building by the “other trades” —“lesser breeds” is what he really means. It is an understandable grievance, for the business of running up steel becomes dizzily complicated when masons, plumbers, carpenters and glaziers follow hard on the heels of the rivetting gang.
It isn’t often, however, that the other trades catch up with steel, for in the building of a modem skyscraper the structural workers figure on completing a floor in a day and a-half.
They work hard, these steel men, but of course they’re highly paid at $1.10 an hour.
“I’m quitting steel,” one of them told me. “Sure, I’ve made big money in my day, but averaged over the past five years my earnings have been less than nine dollars a week. It isn’t worth it. I’m quitting.”
But he won’t quit, for a structural steel worker is like a Freemason. He can’t.
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