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So Long, and Thanks for Everything: my farewell email to the West Island Line project

December 3, 2012

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I am rotating to my design training next week.  Since most of you probably don’t even know who this Jeremiah person is, instead of boring you with a banal farewell email, I thought maybe I should share with you ten things I learnt in my 28 months of work with 704.  Some of you might find some of these mildly amusing, others interesting, just a few might even be useful.

  1. Curing compound is not the same as concrete retarder and shotcrete stabiliser is not the same as diesel.
  2. Your phone book is your best friend on site (along with your camera), there is hardly any problem that you can solve without making at least a call.  So feed your phone book well with the telephone numbers of subcontractors, suppliers, colleagues, site-workers, delivery drivers, security guards, etc.  For the smartphone owners here, the telephone list kindly kept up-to-date by Amy can actually be reformatted and imported into Gmail and then synced to your iPhone or Android phone very easily.
  3. 102x51x10 channel section (二四槽) is one of the most useful steel members at a construction site, so keep a minimum stock of them.  They can be fabricated into simple working platforms, frames for shelters, guard rails, reinforcement for lifting buckets or water tanks, rebar protectors, etc.  One of the reasons for its omnipresence is that they are of a manageable weight.  Therefore, one should try to consider them first when designing any light-weight temporary structure / equipment.
  1. You are much more likely to be stopped by the police and security guards in your scruffy site clothes.  I have had my HKID checked and bag searched by the police twice on the street and I have been stopped by security guard at my own apartment building at least four times when I was in my site clothes – this has never happened before.  And while we are giving fashion advice, UNIQLO sells some long-sleeved T-shirts in Autumn that is perfect for site work.  They are very thin and are made of 100% cotton, which keeps you cool yet offers your arms basic protection against the sun, the dusts and sharp edges of rock faces (rock faces only, because the ends of rebar are always covered at 704, right?).
  2. One of the most difficult thing to learn as a site engineer is judgement.  Not only in terms of safety, but it is certainly a big part of the challenge.  Safety is your first priority, but safety is relative, not absolute.  For every safety precaution you take, there is always a next step that will eliminate a bit more risk.  So when can you start working on your second priority?  It is very difficult to call and I am in no position to tell you, but I have two tips for myself that you might find useful: (a) think for your workers as you genuinely care about their well-being; (b) keep asking why you are not doing more until you can honestly convince yourself with your explanation.  Once a big safety boss told me that as a Gammon employee, I should instinctively do whatever I can to make the work place safer.  But most of the time, even carrying out the safety precaution poses a risk and sometimes this even outweighs the risk it eliminates.  In nerdy terms, safety is not a first-order problem.  “If you think, you are not Gammon,” he told me.  I cannot disagree more. 
  1. The humble concrete spacer is one of the most ingenious designs you can find on site.  Its elegance lies with its simplicity.  Despite being a solid concrete block with no movable parts, it can be used to maintain one of the four cover depths depending on its orientation.  Yet this feature is hardly ever properly utilised in practice, either because the intention behind the design failed to be passed onto the site level, or the design offers a level of detail that is impractical or not required on site, or that the site staff doesn’t care enough.  In many ways, I feel this represents many of the problems faced by the industry in miniature.
  2. Try to split your time between office and site.  Spend all of your time at the office and you will have no realistic idea of how the site works; spend all of your time on site and you will have little foresight of what lies ahead.  When you are at the office, try to sit in on every possible meeting.  You are also more likely to pick up a more varied range of tasks at the office.  I would never have gained my experience in working on the DNV Audit element interviews, the EOT claims or the procurement of the shaft access towers and ventilation fans if I had spent all my time on site.
  3. Respect is earned, not given, especially as a young site engineer.  This is related to the previous point.  When you are starting out as a site engineer, you will find that your seniors are able to tell people what to do in one sentence, while you’ve been trying to give the same instruction for the past 3 days.  But as you show your face more on site, your “site cred” and the weight your words carry will grow.  Spot mistakes and point them out (as nicely or as forcefully as you like to suit your style), as you do this more and more, people will start to appreciate your ability and you will start to earn their respect.
  1. Use a password-protected online storage provider as an easy way to access your non-confidential files between office and site where you don’t have access to the mighty company server.  Files such as blank forms, progress photos, product specifications, plant and lifting gear certificates often need to be readily accessible.  I also use it to send large files.  Because USB thumb drives get lost / soaked / damaged, email inboxes get filled and it might be useful to access the files on your mobile devices.  I use Microsoft’s Skydrive because it used to offer 25GB of free storage but it has sadly been reduced to 7GB now, other service-providers such as Dropbox and Google Drive are available.  Always set your files to “password-protected” or at least “unlisted”.
  2. It is possible to survive for two years as a site engineer without using any curse words, despite what everybody tells you.  I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it is possible.

Hopefully I will learn another ten things during my design training and share it with you soon.  Maybe in a year, I will tell you that 102x51x10 channels are rubbish because its asymmetric section makes it prone to lateral torsional buckling, or something entirely different!

So long, and thanks for everything!




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