The Steel Institute of New York talked to Bryan Brady, director of training for the Iron Workers Locals 40 / 361 Training Facility, about how apprentices and journeymen have navigated a new pandemic learning environment.
Contractors hire union iron workers because of their extensive training and elevated skill level, among other reasons. Have you been able to continue offering training during the pandemic?
When everything was first shut down in March we were fortunate that we had a Learning Management System (LMS) already in place that allowed us to take our students online and continue their courses. Their books and assignment sheets were all in the LMS, and we could administer the tests online also. It was a pretty smooth transition over to online training.
Have you noticed anything different about training apprentices online?
I think the strength of our school is the people coming into the physical building and creating a bond with each other. There’s more to education than just reading and answering questions. I believe the school creates an atmosphere for the students to create bonds to learn from each other and from their instructors. It is something they’ll remember for the next 30 years: who they went to school with and who they sat next to. Some of this is being lost due to the pandemic.
As far as the education part, they’re getting that online; they are still receiving more than 600 hours of training, just not the overall camaraderie they would experience if we weren’t trying to protect each other from COVID-19.
Everyone in education is thinking creatively to adapt to the evolving crisis. How have your instructors adapted training protocols in response?
In addition to the LMS our teachers are using Zoom technology. We’re continuing refresher courses for the experienced ironworkers to keep their tower crane and rigging cards up to date. The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers had that system set up already, and had taken all our textbooks and lesson plans and put them online, so that was ready to go when this pandemic hit.
Was there anything the LMS couldn’t take the place of?
In March our third-year students were six months into practicing for their welding exams when the pandemic suddenly brought that training to a halt. During the summertime when virus numbers improved in New York, we brought them back into school and had no issues with COVID-19. Our welding shop is ideal for socially distant training; it is 12,000 sq ft with an exhaust system in place. Our 36 welding booths are all six feet apart. This allowed our third-year students to finish the exams they had been training for all year. Our school is certified by the American Welding Society (AWS), and we have a staff of Certified Welding Inspectors (CWIs) who are all trained and certified to administer the welding exams and issue certifications upon successful completion of the test.
Have these reworkings of training and skill-development in order to prevent spread of the virus led to changes likely to remain part of your training techniques into the future?
The Learning Management System and the Zoom classes are things we can implement going forward. These are other tools at our disposal, but they’re not anything we’d want to replace in-person learning. Having students in our school creating friendships and bonds that last decades has helped us be significantly safer in the field. This has become more evident as the increase in fatalities of untrained construction workers has skyrocketed in NYC.
Can you tell us about your virtual reality training?
About a year ago, we brought in virtual-reality welders from Lincoln and Miller Electric. Before the students start burning live welding rods, they can get a good feel for what they’ll be doing with a computerized process. It tells you things they did correctly and things they can improve on, so when they do get into the shop and start burning welding rods that cost 25 cents each, they’ll be more advanced and there will be less waste and more understanding of hazards that may arise.
Due to new standards for operating mobile elevator work platforms, we have just added an actual manlift basket in the classroom that gives you that feeling that you’re 50 or 60 ft up in the air and operating a manlift, which works really well for our newest students before they go out in the field. We also have a VR simulation that lets you practice walking beams at height.
One of the most important parts of training is safety on the job. How have iron workers remained largely virus-free while working on essential construction?
I think that being a structural ironworker has some built-in protections. It is inherently a socially distant job. You’re out in the fresh air all day long, and it’s rare that people are within six feet of each other for long periods of time. Even so, we alert the students of the latest CDC requirements and about what they should be doing to keep themselves and their coworkers safe. We use a system called Remind that allows us to send internal communication to all 300 students immediately if new guidelines are released.
Have any of the virus guidelines hindered other aspects of job safety?
If you’re wearing a face covering with safety glasses, they could fog up which is obviously dangerous when you’re working at heights.
How else are you measuring the success of the training program in preventing the spread of the virus?
We want to get the message out to contractors and structural engineers about the benefit of hiring union ironworkers. Our students have 600 hours of classroom training and 4,000 hours of on-the-job training before they graduate. We would like contractors to understand that this group of people knows what’s happening, they know the guidelines, they know how to protect themselves and stay safe, and they have that bond where they care about each other. Nobody cares about another ironworker more than his or her partner. They work together all day long, they know each other’s families and don’t want to see each other get hurt. Hiring those kinds of workers is a benefit to the steel erectors and the contractors.
How have iron workers’ families fared?
Twenty-five years ago when lead standards came out, iron workers were one of the first to realize you should not wear your clothes home. You don’t want to inadvertently bring lead contamination home to your family. It is the same idea now: wash your hands, be clean, don’t bring your clothes into your house. We’ve been considering how to protect ironworkers’ families for a long time and how to avoid bringing jobsite hazards home.
What does the next year hold for the ironworkers?
My first wish is that a vaccine is found so people feel secure going back to work and coming back into New York’s office buildings. We need people feeling safe. It’s important not just to ironworkers but to all New Yorkers that this virus is controlled and eventually eliminated.
See the story and photos on enr.com.