Aboriginal Ironworkers
Aboriginal Ironworkers

On the job

Being an ironworker means being part of a team.

On the job, ironworkers typically operate in pairs as part of a crew, working together to build bridges, highways, dams, factories, skyscrapers and other buildings. Off the job, many ironworkers gather to enjoy barbeques and fishing and hunting trips, and to talk about their experiences in the industry.

As an ironworker, you may have to travel for certain projects. On those jobs, you will not only live and travel with your ironworking partner, you’ll also live together. Ironworkers often mention the “on-site” living arrangements as one of the best parts of the job. It is over evening meals and long discussions about the day’s adventures that many ironworkers bond and form lifelong friendships.

Working together enables ironworkers to deliver the best results possible on a given job site—they work more efficiently and effectively as a team. It also keeps them safe. Having a partner looking out for you, just as you look out for them, lets you know that someone on site always has your back covered.

A big part of working as a team is sharing your knowledge with other ironworkers. On most job sites, there are several apprentice ironworkers learning the skills of the trade from certified, or journeyperson ironworkers. Depending on the province, there can be one apprentice for every one to five journeyperson ironworkers on a job site.

Certified ironworkers are qualified to work in all categories of ironwork, and they teach apprentice ironworkers every aspect of the trade.

Work environment

Waking up at six, eating something, grabbing a coffee on the way to work …
—Josh Kelly, journeyperson ironworker, Sto:lo Nation, BC

Ironworkers usually start early, beginning around 7 am and finishing around 3 pm. They typically work 40 hours a week (eight hours a day, five days a week), but overtime is often necessary to meet the demands of the construction industry. Some jobs involve longer hours or working six days a week instead of five. Many workers look forward to the longer hours and to the bigger pay cheques that come with working overtime.

Most ironwork is done outside and is carried out year-round, so you may have to work in all kinds of weather.

Ironworking requires strength, agility and balance; you will work with heavy materials and equipment, sometimes at great heights. It also requires common sense—you’ll need to make good decisions quickly and adapt to different work settings and job sites.

On-the-job safety

On-the-job safety is the top priority in ironworking. Ironworkers are trained to work safely, and use safety devices such as harnesses, hard hats, steel-toed boots and scaffolding to protect themselves from injury.

To find more information on safety in the industry, you can visit The industry.

Categories of ironwork

So what exactly do ironworkers do on the job? Here are some of the main types of work that ironworkers perform:

Structural ironwork

If you’ve seen workers walking on the steel framework of large buildings under construction, you’ve seen structural ironworkers at work. Their job is to unload, erect and connect fabricated iron pieces to form the skeleton of a structure. Structural ironworkers help build industrial, commercial and large residential buildings, as well as towers, bridges, stadiums and prefabricated metal buildings. They also erect and install pre-cast beams, columns and panels.

Reinforcing and post-tensioning ironwork

If you’ve heard the term “rebar,” you may know that it’s reinforcing ironworkers who fabricate and place these steel bars in concrete forms to reinforce concrete structures. Reinforcing ironwork is known among ironworkers as the “free gym membership”; ironworkers often have to carry the heavy rebar from one point to another on the job site.

Reinforcing ironworkers also install post-tensioning tendons, or cables. These cables are placed in concrete forms along with the rebar. After the concrete is poured and hardened, the ironworkers stress the tendons using hydraulic jacks and pumps. This technology allows structures to span greater distances between supporting columns.

Reinforcing ironworkers are employed wherever reinforced concrete is used in the construction of such structures as buildings, dams, drainage channels, highway interchanges, bridges, stadiums and airports.

Ornamental ironwork

Ornamental ironworkers install metal windows into masonry or wooden openings of a building. They also erect the curtain wall and window wall systems that cover the steel or reinforced concrete structure of a building. These systems are sometimes referred to as the “skin” of the building.

Windows, curtain wall and window wall systems are usually made out of shaped aluminum, and may have panels of glass, metal, masonry or composite materials. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is an example of this type of work—the exterior of the main hall is made up of steel frames and glass curtain wall.

Ornamental ironworkers also install and erect finish work such as metal stairways, cat walks, gratings, ladders, doors, railings, fencing, gates, metal screens, elevator fronts, platforms and entranceways. The finish work is fastened to the structure by bolting or welding.

Also known as “finishers,” ornamental ironworkers are employed in the construction of large commercial, industrial and residential buildings.

Rigging and machinery moving

Rigging is an integral part of ironworking. Ironworker riggers load, unload, move and set machinery, structural steel, curtain walls and many other materials. Riggers work with power hoists, cranes, derricks, forklifts and aerial lifts. They may also move materials and machinery by hand, using a series of blocks and tackle.

Any ironworker who does rigging must have knowledge of fibre line, wire rope, hooks, skids, rollers, proper hand signals, and hoisting equipment.

Welding and cutting

Welding is a key component of ironworking. Ironworkers use welding to secure their work to the structure on nearly all ironworking projects. Most job sites require an ironworker welder who is qualified to perform welding and burning tasks.

Miscellaneous ironwork

In addition to the five best-known categories of ironwork which are described above, ironworkers perform a wide variety of other specialized tasks. This includes work on:

  • metal buildings
  • architectural and structural precast
  • plant maintenance
  • offshore drilling platforms
  • towers
  • chain-link fences
  • amusement equipment and rides
  • bank vaults and doors
  • canopies
  • doors (metal and roll-up)
  • geodesic domes
  • jail cells
  • overhead cranes

Tales of the trade

Talk to any ironworker about their job and you’re bound to hear tales of camaraderie, adventure and good times. You’ll stories of worksites where everyone has a nickname and no one heads off alone at the end of the day.

Here, a few ironworkers tell you what they love most about the job:

Different views and heights, it gives you a thrill.
Peter Hayden, journeyperson ironworker, Plains Cree First Nation, SK

It’s a fun, fun job … It’s like getting paid to work out. I’m in the best shape of my life right now.
—Troy Michel, apprentice ironworker, BC

Physically it’s a very demanding job. But it’s fun too.
Lynn Baikie, journeyperson ironworker, First Nations, NL

It’s never the same on the work site, it’s always something different … I can’t be sitting around all day, I like working with my friends … working with my hands and just being out there.
Jobriath Berbour, ironworker, Haida Cree, MB

It’s like an adventure … I get to go and work in New York. I get out on the job and a lot of men are surprised initially, but after they see me work, I usually end up showing everybody.
Cynthia Cook, apprentice ironworker, Akwesasne Mohawk, QC

I thought maybe they’d judge me for being a woman … I’m not treated differently from any other apprentice, you just get your orders and you do them.
Robyn Garlow, apprentice ironworker, Six Nations of the Grand River, ON

My crew is pretty much my family … I’ve become pretty close with them, so after work, sometimes on weekends, we’ll have barbeques and stuff like that. We’ll take our kids out together, go fishing. It’s sort of like a family atmosphere at this job.
Danny Mellish, journeyperson ironworker, Squamish Nation, BC

… with a bridge it is always different. I mean, the structure is basically the same, but there are always different procedures … That’s what I like about it.
—Bryden Mitchell, journeyperson ironworker, Listiguj First Nation, QC

When you arrive at work in the morning, the ground might be covered in steel. But by the end of the day, all that steel is up and has created a structure for a building or a bridge or whatever … We quite often refer to workers in our field as brothers and sisters … Sometimes we fight, sometimes we get along, but essentially ironworkers look out for each other.
Jeff Norris, ironworker training instructor, Spruce Grove Métis, AB

Tools of the trade

Part of the fun of ironwork is getting to work with dozens of tools. Here are just some of the tools and equipment that ironworkers use:

  • Adjustable wrench: steel wrench with an adjustable lower jaw, used for tightening odd-sized bolts; also called “crescent wrench” or “Westcott wrench”
  • Angel wing: portable, collapsible work platform, used to conduct work at extreme heights
  • Awl: sharp, pointed tool anchored in a handle, used for scribing and marking holes
  • Back and out: special hammer-like tool with a tapered end, used to knock out defective rivets, rusted bolts or stuck pins; also called “B & O”
  • Barrel pin: pin tapered equally on both ends, used for aligning holes when connecting or bolting steel
  • Beam clamp: clamp device that attaches to metal beams, used to raise beams or to secure a load that is suspended below the beam
  • Bevel square: adjustable tool that can be set at any angle to determine whether materials are square, consists of a steel blade set into a slotted handle and held by a wing nut
  • Block: metal or wooden frame used to enclose a pulley during hoisting
  • Bolt bag: heavy canvas or leather bag that attaches to the waist belt, worn by structural ironworkers to carry bolts
  • Bridge reamer: fluted, tapered pin with sharp edges, used to ream holes to a larger size
  • Bull pin: special tapered metal pin used to fit and prepare a pattern of holes for bolting
  • Centre punch: small round tool with a cone-shaped point, used to make small indentations in steel so that a drill bit can be easily started
  • Chain hoist: manual or electronic device used to raise and lower heavy objects; also called “chain fall”
  • Choker: sling with two eyes—or one eye and one hook—which tighten around objects, used for lifting
  • Combination square: layout tool that consists of a square, a bevel protractor and a centre head
  • Crane: travelling, portable or stationary machine used for lifting, lowering and moving loads
  • Die: tool used for cutting external threads
  • Ezy-out: tapered, spiraled rod with sharp rides, used to extract broken screws or studs
  • File: piece of hardened carbon steel with teeth cut into its face and/or edges in parallel diagonal lines, used to smooth edges
  • Framing square: large L-shaped tool used to measure and lay out steel
  • Frog: tool holder attached to a tool belt; also called “scabbard”
  • Gate block: block that holds rope or wire, used to feed rope/wire more efficiently
  • Grinder: used to clean, polish and bevel the edges of steel plates
  • Hack saw: hand-held saw with a hardened blade, used to cut metal
  • Hickey bar: used to bend reinforcing bars (rebar)
  • Impact wrench: heavy drill-like gun driven by an air compressor, used to tighten high-strength nuts; also called a “yo-yo”
  • Jack: lifting device operated by a lever, screw or crank, or by hydraulic power
  • Jitterbug: air-operated chipping device used for welding
  • Keel: crayon used to mark steel
  • Leading block: single block used to change the direction of pull on a line
  • Level: tool used to determine if a surface is in a perfectly horizontal position
  • Lever chain hoist: manual hoist used to move heavy loads vertically or horizontally, also called “come-along”
  • Lighter: used to ignite fuel gas on an oxy-fuel cutting torch
  • Long-tom: heavy pipe-like tool with a chisel hammer on one end, used to break the heads of defective rivets
  • Mauls: thinner versions of sledge hammers, used in tight areas to drive steel into position or to force steel pins through bolt holes
  • Open end wrench: steel wrench with a straight handle, used to tighten or loosen large anchor bolts
  • Piano wire: very strong steel wire used to align steel pieces
  • Pliers: used for gripping, cutting, turning and pulling bolts, screws and other metal parts; available in dozens of shapes, styles and sizes
  • Plumb bob: pointed, cone-shaped weight used to pull line in a perfectly vertical position
  • Portable electric drill: used to drill holes in steel
  • Regulator: pressure controlling device used on oxygen or fuel cylinders to provide the proper mixture of the two gases for cutting or oxy-fuel welding
  • Rotary hammer drill: electric motor attached with bits, used to make holes in concrete or other masonry
  • Scaffold: temporary structure or platform that enables ironworkers to work at heights or in tight areas
  • Shackle: U-shaped device with pins through the free ends, used in rigging to connect metal links
  • Sledge hammer: used to drive steel into position or to force steel pins through bolt holes, can weigh up to 16 pounds; also called a “beater”
  • Sleever bar: long, round connecting bar with a spoon or wedge on one end and a tapered point on the other
  • Sling: wire rope or synthetic material with eyes and/or attachments, used to hoist material
  • Sorting hooks: special hooks used to sort steel into the proper sequence for building
  • Spirit level: device that uses air bubbles to determine whether a surface is level
  • Spreader: term applied to two slings with angled legs used to lift a load
  • Spreader beam: spreader that consists of an engineered bar or beam, used to lift loads
  • Spud wrench: steel wrench with a long tapered handle, used to match up holes in two pieces of steel before they are bolted together
  • Steel wedge: used to lift heavy beams
  • Tackle: combination of blocks, ropes and hooks, used for raising, lowering or moving heavy objects
  • Tag line: rope tied to a structural member or to reinforcing steel, used to guide and control steel during raising
  • Tap: tool used to cut internal threads
  • Thimble: device installed in the eyes of slings to prevent wear on the wire rope
  • Tie-wire reel: used to carry or wind wire used in reinforcing ironwork
  • Tool belt: attaches to ironworkers’ waists and can hold a number of ironworking tools
  • Tool holder: leather sacks that attach to the tool belt and can hold a variety of ironworking tools
  • Torch: mechanism held by the operator during oxy-fuel cutting
  • Transit: surveying instrument that can be rotated 360 degrees on its horizontal axis, used to measure vertical and horizontal angles
  • Turnbuckle: tension-adjusting device that consists of a tube through which rope or wire is threaded, used to tighten or loosen rope or wire