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The operating engineers’ craft can be traced back to the introduction of steam as a power source. Not long after railroad tracks carrying steam locomotive engines began to crisscross Europe and the United States, enterprising mechanics began to adapt steam engines to move mass quantities of earth; to lift construction materials; and to generate electricity in buildings and factories in the days before municipal electric systems. To this day, in honor of the role of steam power, the steam gauge remains the logo of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Operating engineers run and/or fix heavy equipment in a variety of industries, some closely related to construction, others not. Read on to learn more about the varied crafts that make up the work of the Operating Engineers
Road construction is also one of the most common sources of employment for operating engineers. After mass earthmoving equipment has “cut” roads, prepared the stone base, concrete or asphalt-paving machines put down layers of pavement engineered to carry various loads depending upon traffic and weather conditions. Heavy equipment is also used in the construction of bridges and the drainage systems associated with any roadwork.
Hoisting and lifting construction materials is another of the most common functions of operating engineers. Manipulating the controls of cranes, booms, and hoists, operating engineers service other crafts by lifting materials, supplies, and workers themselves from one place to another. Tower crane operators are the single most important workers in the erection of a high-rise building. Crane operators also lower materials into the deep tunnel projects that have been going on in and around the Chicago area for decades.
Mass Earth Moving
Mass earth moving –also called “dirt work”—remains one of the biggest sources of employment for operating engineers. After a field of virgin land is planned for development, operators first strip or “scrape” the top soil using a machine called a scraper. Once black dirt is removed down to clay or other base material, it is “balanced” by graders and compacted by compactors and rollers. Holes for foundations and trenches for sewer and water lines are dug with excavators, also called track backhoes. Bulldozers, Gradalls, and all manner of other specialized equipment move dirt to contour the land to whatever specification is needed.
The steel industry once dominated northwest Indiana and Chicago’s southeast side. Many of the mills are now gone, but those that remain still subcontract service work to Local 150 employers. Operating some of the largest endloaders and cranes, Local 150 members move raw materials such as coal and iron ore around the mills. The steelmaking process yields a byproduct called “slag,” which is in turn processed to reclaim metals and to produce aggregate materials used in road and other construction projects. Several hundred Local 150 members make their living performing this hot, dangerous work.
Pits and Quarries
Local 150 members employed in construction material production mine and process limestone, sand and gravel, and other aggregate construction materials in hundreds of gravel pits and stone quarries throughout Local 150’s jurisdiction. Local 150 members operate endloaders to feed stone-crushers and processing plants in quarries in Indiana and Illinois, where some of the richest deposits of limestone in the World are found.
Sand and gravel are still extracted from lakes and riverbeds using “draglines”—cranes rigged with “clamshell” buckets dropped into the water and dragged to shore loaded with material. Sand and gravel are also mined in open pits, which often are later converted to man-made lakes for housing developments.
Local 150 also represents the hundreds of operators throughout its jurisdiction engaged in asphalt production. An endloader operator feeds the asphalt plant with sand and “chips.” A plant operator the manipulates highly complex controls to add oil and thus obtain the specified asphalt mix for use in highways, parking lots, and driveways.
Solid waste, the term used to describe the garbage generated by the country’s households and businesses, is most often disposed of in government-regulated landfills. Landfills are highly regulated and the work performed at these sites is subject to strict and detailed rules. State agencies like the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency oversee the development and operation of a landfill system. The development of a landfill requires a substantial investment of land and equipment totaling millions of dollars.
A landfill is a carefully designed structure constructed in or on top of the ground in which garbage is compacted and placed. It is divided into sections called cells, which the landfill operator develops on an as needed basis. Cells are customarily excavating by an operating engineer utilizing heavy equipment. The cell is then lined with protective material designed to prevent leachate – or toxic liquid which develops as the garbage becomes saturated with rain water and breaks down – from continuing groundwater. Into each cell specific loads of waste are dumped; the waste is then covered with soil or other approved materials to prevent the spread of odors and to isolate the garbage from the surrounding environment.
At the landfill, trucks arrive on a daily basis and are initially inspected for any prohibited materials and hazardous wastes. For example, in Illinois, landfills are prohibited from accepting any liquids, motor oil, whole tires and landscape wastes. If the load contains only acceptable waste, the landfill operator weighs the load and permits the truck entry to the landfill. The truck proceeds to the working face of the active cell where it disposes of its load. Operators at the landfill run various pieces of equipment, including scrapers, loaders, bulldozers, tub grinders, spreaders, tractors and compactors. Operators use the compactors and dozers to move the waste, spreading and compacting it into place, and crushing it to eliminate air pockets. They use the compactors principally to spread waste and compact it into as small an area as possible.
Drilling plays a role in many construction tasks, from getting foundation samples for bridges, digging water wells, or running heat-exchange loops for renewable energy. These tasks and others require skilled and safety-trained drill operators.
While drilling centered for many years around wells for municipalities and limestone samples, the growing popularity of geothermal energy systems has created a whole new industry for drillers. Local 150 offers members an abundance of education on this growing field, so that Local 150 members are called when contractors are looking for the most experienced geothermal drillers around.
Material testers are often the first trades people on a jobsite, performing environmental testing before a project begins. As work progresses, testers perform evaluations of moisture content, density, stress response, and chemical makeup.
Because these measurements must be precise, testers are required to hold a variety of certifications and often must meet stringent academic requirements.
Railroad Construction Derailment
On a nationwide basis, Local 150 proudly represents equipment operators in the railroad construction and derailment industry. In performing railroad construction work, these members work on interstate rail and urban mass transit lines. Their goal is to ensure the viability of the nation’s rail infrastructure and passenger and shipping systems. As the backbone of track replacement, improvement and new construction projects, they help modernize and update the country’s rail lines.
In the railroad derailment or “wrecking” industry, Local 150 members perform the often dangerous work of clearing track and righting trains in the wake of railroad wrecks. As first responders to the nation’s rail disasters, these members are on call 24 hours a day. Onsite, they expertly operate sidebooms, cranes, dozers, and other heavy equipment to re-rail derailed trains and clean up any associated environmental spills. Their brave actions at these dangerous derailment sites, which are often practically inaccessible, make sure that the nation’s rail traffic is able to continue with a minimum of disruption.
Local 150 represents employees who perform marine construction, dredging, diving, marine surveying and other maritime work. These individuals work under various agreements and include deckhands, boat operators, deck engineers, welders, mechanics, crane operators, marine surveyors and divers. They perform a wide variety of maritime construction-related tasks, including towing barges on the Great Lakes and rivers, assembling and disassembling hydraulic pipeline, performing construction work for ports, bridges, riverboat casinos, and laying fiber optic cable underwater.
Local 150 represents employees in Pipeline Industry throughout its jurisdiction and beyond. Local 150 members are employed directly by gas companies, utility companies, gas distribution companies and contractors which provide services to those employers. Many of the companies that employ Local 150 members contract with national companies to establish pipelines linking natural gas, oil, and other fields of natural resources to distribution facilities, and then on to consumers. As a result, Local 150 members often find themselves working all over the world in some of the most dangerous and difficult working conditions imaginable.
From the deserts of the war-torn Middle East to the frozen tundra of Canada and Alaska to the jungles of the Amazon, Local 150 members perform dangerous tasks such as testing old gas mains; testing and replacing natural gas, petroleum, oil, and other utility lines; and installing new pipelines. In performing such tasks, Local 150 members operate heavy equipment such as sidebooms, dozers, trackhoes, pickers, and boom trucks. Local 150 members working in the pipeline industry are highly skilled, highly mobile, and highly adaptable. These members are a rare breed in a Union made up of men and women who are anything but ordinary!
Landscape construction workers put the finishing touches on all manner of building and highway construction projects. Landscape operators spread topsoil, dig the holes for trees and shrubs, and generally prepare for the “greening” of completed construction worksites. Landscape plantsmen finish the process by installing sod, shrubs, and other decorative plantings.
Local 150 represents over 100 bargaining units of employees employed by cities, towns, counties, and various other municipal bodies such as parks and sanitary districts throughout its jurisdiction. These workers operate heavy equipment to patch and repair streets, perform landscaping work, vacuum leaves, plow snow, and to perform a variety of other public services. At one time, much of this work was subcontracted to private employers. As municipalities grew, they often invested in equipment in an effort to save tax dollars. While that is of course a good goal, public employees are entitled to a fair wage for their work as is anyone else. Over the years, Local 150 has increased wages, enhanced benefits, and improved working conditions for hundreds of public works employees.
Perhaps the single biggest employer of public works employees represented by Local 150 is the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. For over 15 years, “hoisting engineers” employed by the City and the Park District have operated heavy equipment to repair City sewer and water systems, rebuild curbs and gutters, patch streets, plow snow, and maintain the City’s parks and recreational facilities. Because of their unusual skill and dedication to their craft, the hiring of hoisting engineers is widely understood as being beyond politics.
In 2000, Local 150 was the first union representing public works employees in Illinois to strike in support of their demands. Then in dramatic fashion the citizens of Naperville, Illinois, recognized the importance of public works employees to keeping their streets safe, their water clean, their garbage and other waste properly disposed of. Today, the City of Naperville and Local 150 enjoy a harmonious working relationship, united in the common goal of fairly compensating public employees to deliver high-quality public services.
Heavy Equipment Mechanics
In a craft already comprised of highly skilled workers, some of the most skilled of all operating engineers are the heavy equipment mechanics. “Field” mechanics service and repair equipment on construction sites, and “shop” mechanics work out of heavy equipment dealerships and rental and repair shops. These operating engineers use the most sophisticated diagnostic equipment to keep what are often very expensive machines in safe and efficient working order.