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Ever see a construction worker hanging off a bridge while making essential repairs and wonder what it takes to do a job like that?

The same rare skills, along with many others, also are necessary to build and maintain the nation’s growing number of wind turbines—and the Ironworkers’ training and apprenticeship program is ensuring workers across the nation have the skills they need for 21st century green energy projects.

Rhode Island Local 37 Ironworkers member John Bacon and his crew were among those taking part in a recent Ironworkers training on wind turbine construction and tower safety, part of a carefully crafted program to meet the industry’s growing needs. At the Francis Tuttle Training Center in Oklahoma City, they joined a four-day class that focuses on two specific areas identified as a critical need for the wind turbine industry: bolt torqueing and tensioning, and tower climbing and rescue. Those who complete the course get four nationally recognized certificates from industry leaders Capital Safety, Snap-On Industrial and HYTORC, Inc.

The union and its labor-management component, IMPACT (the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust), developed the program with the nonprofit accredited technical training facility, which already was providing wind turbine training, according to Harvey Swift, IMPACT assistant director of education and training.       

Swift says some of the newly certified workers already have found work in the wind energy industry, while others are back on construction sites, using their finely tuned skills.

For Indiana-based White Construction, the value of the customized training is clear. Ironworkers Local 444 in Joliet, Ill., regularly supplies White with wind turbine workers.

“I have seen a significant difference in the Local 444 workers that we have received out of the hall,” said Ryan Dodge, White’s field operations manager. “The increase in productivity in Local 444’s area is a direct reflection of the positive results from the IMPACT wind turbine training.”

Bacon and his crew, who are employed at a family-owned business, H.B. Welding, now are certified and hope to land jobs when construction on the wind farms planned for Rhode Island’s Block Island Sound get under way. Meanwhile, their sharper skills already are in use on traditional Ironworkers projects—most notably, construction of the replacement Sakonnet River Bridge, which links Portsmouth and Tiverton, R.I.

Bolt tightening is a constant for Ironworkers, Bacon said. “Having the credentials to back up our experience is great, even on regular construction jobs.” And the high-elevation rescue training needed for wind turbine work transfers well to bridge work, he said. At heights from 100 to 300 feet, it requires more than typical fall protection.

“Everyone is always fully tied off at those heights, so impact isn’t a problem, but the Ironworkers training prepared us for rescuing a worker who falls into his harness,” Bacon said.

Suspended out of the reach of cranes or other equipment, a fallen worker’s entire body weight is carried around his or her thighs, where pressure from the harness on the femoral artery poses a critical danger. In those situations, co-workers are the key to a safe rescue.

Those with certifications are ready to help by using special rope-grab and reel equipment, using just a few pounds of pressure to reel a fallen worker in. H.B. Welding purchased the same kind of rescue equipment kits apprentices practiced with during the training—and Local 37 sent additional members to get the new training.

IMPACT also received a Department of Labor grant to create a union-based turbine training program in five locations: Buffalo, N.Y.; Salt Lake City; Dallas/Fort Worth; Los Angeles; and Joliet, Ill. Each of the five centers is equipped with tools and equipment as well as a mobile training trailer that could move the gear directly to wind farms or other training sites. Ironworkers instructors participated in the Oklahoma City training to learn the ropes—and help refine the curriculum that would guide the local union-based training.

“With the five regional centers, the mobility of the equipment and its introduction into all local union training, we are able to meet the demands of every project for skilled, safe and productive Ironworkers,” said Ironworkers President Walter Wise. The goal of the DOL grant was to train 510 workers. With 620 trained, the union surpassed that by 21 percent—and local unions can continue to send members for training as needed in the future.

Even as construction jobs nationwide continue to lag, many who have participated in IMPACT trainings now are back on the job “because they upgraded their skills,” Swift said, through a labor-management partnership that emphasizes job safety, high skills and quality work.

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