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There’s always something to learn at a job site, says curtain wall vet

Dan O'Reilly

With almost 30 years of experience as a curtain wall supervisor/installer with Brampton, Ont.-based C3 Polymeric, Bill Martin has definite views on the trade and who should get into it.

"You’re either cut out for this work or you’re not and not everyone is," says Martin,  the company’s most experienced supervisor and who also is comfortable doing his own rigging.

In that role he does double duty working on swing stages erecting curtain walls right along the crews who are C3 employees, not subtrades. The only exception is public institution projects with procurement policies dictating the use of unionized workers, he points out.

It’s also a position requiring a constant monitoring of weather conditions. If it’s too windy or rainy work can’t proceed and the crews either have to be sent home, moved to low storey buildings where booms can be used, or assigned other tasks.

Weather was certainly a factor in the timing of curtain wall retrofit of a downtown Toronto office tower which was scheduled to get underway in early October.

"The (first) week was a total write off."

The former Newfoundland native’s entry into the business was through a rather circuitous route. After finishing high school he followed his older brother’s advice to move to Ontario and apply for a position with C3 where the brother worked. At that time it was known as Polymeric Engineering.

He was hired and worked as a labourer for about six or seven years and then decided to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces, a decision he’s never regretted.

"I got to see the world, but at the end of my three-year term decided that was enough."

Returning to civilian life was fairly seamlessly as Polymeric asked him back. A few years later he was laid off, although was soon hired by Clifford Masonry and became a certified mason by studying part time at Mohawk College.

Martin might have stayed with Clifford if it hadn’t been for urgent phone call from Polymeric urging him to return to the company as it needed someone to supervise the restoration of a smokestack at Hamilton’s McMaster University.

"That was in the late 1980s and I have been with them ever since," Martin, noting that subsequently the company began focusing on curtain wall installation under the direction of a new owner.

In his almost three decades on the job there have been a lot of changes. In the past 15 years or so there has been a major focus on formal training by the industry. There has also been an increased emphasis on safety and regulation procedures following the 2009 Christmas Eve swing stage collapse which killed four workers.

Martin, however, learned his skills on the job and says he never stops learning. An example was the retrofit of the two towers at Toronto City Hall where he supervised a union crew which included a journeyman glazier.

"I kept picking pointers up from him."

In response to a question on the attributes which make for a good curtain wall installer, he explains that: "It’s like any other trade. They have to work safely, be good at math and layouts and not be afraid of heights."

Sometimes that fear is not readily evident. On one project a new employee literally ‘froze’ when the swing stage reached the six-storey level. Martin had to calm him down while carefully lowering the swing stage back to the ground.

"I told him to be careful, not to move, and not to grab hold of me," says Martin, who uses the comparison of a drowning person who will try to grab a rescuer with the result both lives are potentially endangered.

"At the end of the day I want to go home and I want my workers to go home as well," says Martin on the need to constantly stress workplace safely.

For those who are not intimidated by working at heights, however, there are lots of opportunities, he says.

"Just look at all the glass buildings in Toronto."

Although not compulsory, there is a formal apprenticeship process through the Ontario College of Trades for curtain wall installers now formally known as architectural glass and metal technicians.

"They have to complete 8,000 hours of training, which includes three eight-week sessions of schooling, and write a final exam before receiving their Certificate of Qualifications," says Ray Preston, business representative for Local 1819 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Training for both unionized and non-unionized apprentices is available through the Ontario Industrial Finishing Skills Centre, says Preston.

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