Precarious Labor: Traffic Control

This is a repost from my personal blog Only20something about the construction industry and the workers that are on the lower end of the food chain in most companies, in keeping with my theme of last week’s post on forgotten populations.

Student jobs and seasonal work often go unnoticed because the labour is cheap and has high turnover, and the actual work itself is often considered unskilled and not very mentally stimulating.

Closeup of a road sign that says "Slow" in English and French

That doesn’t mean that this kind of work is easy.

As it becomes harder to find work in Ontario, many of the province’s residents are migrating seasonally to work in Western provinces that are host to a wealth of different construction companies. The Globe and Mail recently looked at Stats Canada and declared that employment in construction is at a record high, while it is also a fairly well-known fact that employers in Fort McMurray, Alberta can never hire enough people to work in the oil sands industry.

My personal experience as a flag person over the summer managed to live up to my expectations and shock me at the same time. I knew going in that I was going to be roughing it: living in dingy hotels, surviving on fast food and frequently having to go to the washroom outside. But I certainly didn’t expect that I would have to wait 8 hours for a pee break, or 3 and a half weeks to go to a grocery store so that I could have proper lunches for my long 13-16 hour days.

Construction is a difficult industry, mainly due to the lifestyle. My primary problem with it, however, is the senseless lack of regard when it comes to worker safety and dignity. I don’t want to generalize too much because I have never been employed elsewhere in the industry, but I do feel that my own personal experience is reflective of some of the issues involved with the ways in which employers, the government, and the public (motorists & news-readers alike) view flagging as a job.

A truck with orange traffic barriers in the bed drives down a highway

Looking out the window of a moving truck at an open green field; photographer is wearing reflective pants and resting her foot on the window frame.

I worked mainly in Manitoba over the summer for a company that was based out of Alberta. Unfortunately, most of our contracts were pretty far north in the province, and needless to say we all had a rough time with the living conditions through no particular fault of the company. My experience started off fairly well: we had a couple days worth of safety training, a brief orientation, and then we were off to work.

A normal day of flagging consists of stopping traffic and waiting for a pilot vehicle to come lead them through the work zone. When you have a competent supervisor/foreman team, you aren’t left standing for more than a couple of hours at a time before you get a break to drive the pilot vehicle.

A flagger in reflective gear stands in front of a line of cars and trucks, including a house on a flatbed

Although with a more experienced foreman we did have more breaks, there were several injustices that occurred over the span of the 4 months that I worked out there, most of which occurred within a gendered context. Most of the flaggers that worked with this company were young women, and I would say about half of them were also students needing a summer job (like me). The most obvious way in which sexism plays out is in the actual work itself: flagging is taken to be an inherently feminine job because it doesn’t require much skill or strength. In fact, male flaggers are often seen as less masculine and unable to pull their weight in any labouring behind the truck.

During one job, a flagger had to walk behind the production truck and the labourers, holding the slow side towards oncoming traffic. Whenever there was a pause in production, I would get the guys to hold my sign so that I could try doing some of their work: shoveling concrete and mopping the wet pavement were a couple of the jobs. Although it required slightly more strength than flagging (keeping in mind that flaggers also have to lift heavy signs and gas cans), the guys rotated tasks enough that no single person was typically left with a strenuous activity for too long. I could imagine myself doing it.

Ask any other worker, however, about getting the chance to labour at this company as a female—at a $6/hour pay increase—and they’ll laugh in your face. I was frequently told that the company did not hire female labourers for a reason, that most of them simply weren’t strong enough to perform the tasks. I wasn’t the only one who felt that this was a lame excuse.

“If given the opportunity, I feel like girls would try harder, they would care more.” I’m sitting having a coffee with my former co-worker, Veronica*, asking her how she felt about her flagging experience. “As a flagger you’re not expected to live up to much, but it’s both mentally and physically tiring. You have to be able to diffuse situations, you have to be able to keep yourself awake…the stress gets to everyone.”

I think for myself, one of the biggest physical challenges of flagging was the difficulty in staying mentally stimulated, and as Veronica pointed out, staying awake. People don’t realize that flagging requires a certain amount of creativity and discipline, as well as unappreciated kinds of intelligence like spatial sense and ideas about the ways in which motorists think and act.

A flagger walks out into the highway to stop an oncoming car

Another girl I worked with, Lisa*, also had trouble with the physical and mental demands of the job: “We would normally work 13-15 hour days, usually flagging the entire time, which I had somewhat expected…but normally we would not get any breaks. We didn’t have time to eat our lunch and usually didn’t even get five minutes to use the washroom. It was extremely frustrating and tiring.”

*Names have been changed*

Lisa brings up a valid point when it comes to human rights violations. Occasionally, drivers would talk to me on the road while I had them stopped and the first things they asked me were always, “You bored?” or “How do you guys go to the washroom?” I personally grew used to going in between the doors of the pilot truck, spaced back from the traffic there was an adequate amount of privacy given the circumstances. But closer to the end of the season, when we had an inexperienced foreman who seemed to only care about production, there were times when the pilot truck was not in use, and we would be standing on the road with no washroom breaks for hours. On one occasion, one of the production truck drivers relieved me from my post out of sympathy and we were both in trouble.

Doing a little bit of research, I discovered other flaggers’ distaste in washroom break allowances. On the Facebook group “FLAGGERS AGAINST SPEEDING”, one member stated that she had “trained [her] body not to pee” but notes the damage that repressing one’s natural bodily impulses does. “My best friend almost died of kidney failure due to not peeing and working for 16/hrs per shift…. she made multiple comments to her dispatch and nothing happened….. she found herself in the hospital with renal (Kidney) Failure….. And her boss still didn’t stand behind her.” I can certainly vouch that this is a common occurrence, and I have also witnessed first hand supervisors and other workers laughing about it like it’s some sort of joke. It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “Fuck it let ’em stand there.”

Veronica thinks this stems from the overall attitude that comes with flagging. “It’s a job nobody else wants so they just stick you there…we’re supposed to just do our job and not say anything.” This goes hand in hand with flagging as a feminine occupation. We are not expected to go against authority, and there is the implicit expectation of us to stay quietly subordinate in order to let the big boys do the important stuff. Flagging is an afterthought: a necessary component of construction, yet at the same time a job where one is easily replaced.

I believe it’s this idea of replacement that keeps employers and the public alike from caring too much about flagger safety and basic human rights. I found many instances of flaggers injured and killed on the job, and in most cases the flagger is blamed for being distracted or turning their backs to traffic, and the motorists who hit them get off nearly scot free. Fines for speeding through construction zones are not high enough: $150 tickets with no deducted demerit points will certainly not deter people. Lisa agrees: “I do not think enough is being done to ensure drivers slow down when approaching or driving through a work zone. When I was flagging, I ran into a handful of situations with drivers who claimed that they did not see any of our construction signs.”

So is it up to the government or the employer to ensure worker safety? Both of my co-workers think that it is a mix of responsibility between the two, a joint initiative. “When it comes down to it, the employer needs to be absolutely sure that their workers are safe. I think they need to constantly keep an eye on them and stay in contact,” says Lisa. Veronica is more concerned about the enforcement of major safety laws, like ensuring that flaggers don’t have to work after dark without sufficient lighting, a law I saw broken more than once.

Looking back down a winding highway from a construction vehicle

At the end of the day, it is up to everyone, including workers, to ensure the safety of everyone, but this can only be achieved when there is a true awareness of what traffic control as a job actually entails. Flaggers need to start receiving and expecting proper washroom and mental breaks on the job, as well as public justice for negligence on behalf of the public, the government, and the companies that employ them.

Because construction is a growing field in Canada’s employment sector, it is crucial that some awareness is raised about the demands within these jobs, and hopefully then we can start to see less fatalities and workers will feel more comfortable speaking out against these injustices.

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Taylor

I'm a 20-something University of Toronto student trying to hack it as a freelance writer but am also an aspiring journalist. I am particularly interested in diversity within the mass media and love to deconstruct different kinds of advertising, investigating the types of populations different kinds of marketing target.

3 thoughts on “Precarious Labor: Traffic Control”

  1. Hmmm, I have a lot of thoughts on this as someone from Alberta too. Mainly, I do think that the economic boom in western Canada has afforded women a lot more opportunities to finally do stuff other than “pink collar” jobs such as receptionist, cashier etc, particularly for seasonal labour. I’m a PhD student now so I do part time temporary office work and write my dissertation in the summers, but during my undergrad and masters degree I worked spraying weeds and doing landscaping. In both cases, the crews I worked on were pretty much entirely female, university aged men were, at that time, mostly doing construction or oilfield work (granted for a higher pay grade) and couldn’t fill positions. I feel really fortunate that I was given these opportunities, because I carry no student debt as a result. I also have female friends out west who are welders, electricians, project managers, and construction forewomen, all opportunities that they wouldn’t have had a decade ago but now do because of the economy. I do think the increase in this type of work does give women a much better shot at achieving some sort of salary or economic parity with men. With that said, flagging is incredibly dangerous, undervalued, and underpaid work…. and I do wonder if it is the construction equivalent of a “pink collar” job, in that is valued less because it has been traditionally performed by women. And it will be interesting to see if in the next decade or so (post crazy Alberta oil boom) if other industrial work often performed by women is valued less too. If so, then we have a larger societal problem.

    1. I like the description “pink collar”, that’s exactly what these kinds of jobs are. When I was taking a women and work course one of the things that really struck me as odd was the fact that women in the same industry as men are earning less money because they are concentrated within lower ends of said industry. I saw that first hand this summer working alongside guys that were making $6 an hour more than me for a job that wasn’t much harder. We were still all up at the same time, outside the same amount of time…I do agree somewhat that it’s great that these positions are open to women but I also feel like it’s kind of a problem that we have to be grateful for this shitty work when alot of it is just the jobs that men didn’t want anymore (at least that’s the impression I get after working with this company over the summer)

      1. That’s exactly the thing I have difficulty with: on one hand I am glad that I was able to do something other than be a cashier during summers and make enough money to cover a lot of my school related expenses, on the other hand, I certainly would have rather made the amount of money many of the guys I knew in construction etc. were making. But aside from that, the more I think about it, the more I realize the issue of wage parity is even true in horticulture. My younger brother worked a private weed spraying job (I worked for a local government) one summer, basically ensuring that there was zero vegetation growth on refinery sites. His company only assigned women to commercial jobs (like parking lots) and not the industrial ones, citing prior incidents of sexual harassment (catcalling) from refinery workers. The guys doing the industrial spraying not only made a higher wage, but also had more opportunities for overtime etc. I think the rhetoric is that as women, we are supposed to be grateful for this opportunity to do “man’s work,” and not really question why we are making less money, but these are absolutely things that need to be questioned and dealt with.

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