A tale of two foremen
Foreman Ray ordered a 20 litre plastic bucket, containing 70 lbs of mortar, to be hauled high above the sidewalk
November 9, 2017 by Steve Maxwell
In the winter of 1989, I was on a crew refurbishing St. Paul’s church in Hamilton, Ontario and the experience taught me something about the difference that a foreman can make. The 180-foot tall sandstone structure was built between 1854 and 1857, but it had suffered badly from local air pollution and acid rain over the decades. The stone had melted away in places and some of the ornaments were loose around the bell tower and spire. Our job was to repair places that could be salvaged, replace stone that was too far gone, then apply a sacrificial lime plaster to the inside of the spire to draw pollutants out of the stone. We started by building a rough workshop and that’s where questionable leadership first showed up.
Foreman Ray had us follow some wonky design for putting a plywood subfloor and 2x4s down directly on the lawn of the church, requiring intricate shimming against the dirt to create something like a level floor. We were also order to frame the walls with 2x4s on their flat, fastened to plywood first, raised upright panel by panel to make a building that was 60 feet long. You have to wonder how some guys get to be foremen. The day Ray ordered a 20 litre plastic bucket of mortar to be hoisted 100 feet up the side of the church by it’s wire handle convinced me that sometimes the incompetent do rise to the top, at least for a while.
Ray paid no attention to my concerns that this pail was not a safe way to haul 70 lbs of mortar above the sidewalk. When I refused to put the hook on the handle, he rushed forward, did it himself, then gave the signal to the hoist man to hit the switch. The first pail rose fine. Ray gave me a smug smile. Same with the second pail.
Have you ever noticed that when you see things from below as they start falling from a great height, they seem to float there in the air even though they’re falling fast? That was what the third pail of mortar looked like as it came down. I was already out of the way when the wire handle let loose, but Ray had to step sideways quickly. Shrapnel shards of broken plastic and sheets of mortar hit Ray after the explosion on the sidewalk. “Don’t tell anyone this happened”, he ordered. “Go inside and build a wooden hoist box.”
I only worked that winter on the St. Paul’s project, but when I went back a year later to say hello to the guys, the place was entirely different. Ray was gone, the building site was cleaner than I ever saw it, and excellent progress on the church had been made. Tony, a skilled mason with a personality for leadership, had been made foreman and it showed. Eventually competence usually does win out. Just too bad it sometimes takes time to happen.