The common misperception is that ironworkers only erect buildings and bridges, but the fact of the matter is, ironworking is a multi-faceted trade. Most ironworkers do more than one type of ironwork and each has its own challenges and required skills.
Most ironwork is done outdoors and can be carried on year-round except in very severe weather. In many cases, however, there is indoor work that is coordinated to correspond with bad weather. Safety devices such as nets, safety belts, and scaffolding are used to reduce the risk of injury and there is a great deal of climbing, balancing, and reaching.
The following list is a sample of the type of work that ironworkers perform:
Have you seen workers walking around on the steel framework of large buildings under construction? Those daredevils are structural ironworkers – also known as "cowboys of the skies.” Their job is to unload, erect, and connect fabricated iron members to form the skeleton of a structure. Structural ironworkers work on the construction of industrial, commercial, and large residential buildings, as well as on towers, bridges, stadiums and prefabricated metal buildings. They also erect and install pre-cast beams, columns and panels.
Have you heard the term rebar? If you have, you may know that it is reinforcing ironworkers who fabricate and place these steel bars in concrete forms to reinforce concrete structures. Concrete in which reinforcing steel rods (that’s rebar to you and me) have been embedded is widely used in building construction. Rebar is placed on suitable supports and is then tied together with tie wire. Reinforcing ironworkers have to carry the heavy steel bars from one point to another quite frequently, so don’t think you can slack off in the workout department! As we move into the 21st Century, rebar is also fabricated out of composite material – not steel. But that doesn’t matter, ironworkers still install it. Reinforcing ironworkers also install Post Tensioning Tendons (cables). These cables are placed in concrete forms along with the reinforcing steel. After the concrete is poured and hardened, the ironworkers stress the tendons using hydraulic jacks and pumps. This technology allows structures to span greater distances between supporting columns. Reinforcing ironworkers are employed wherever reinforced concrete is used in the construction of such structures as buildings, highways, drainage channels, bridges, stadiums, and airports.
Ornamental ironworkers install metal windows into masonry or wooden openings of a building. They also erect the curtain wall and window wall systems that cover the steel or reinforced concrete structure of a building. Some refer to these systems as the "skin” of the building. Windows, curtain wall and window wall systems are usually fabricated out of extruded aluminum shapes and may have panels of glass, metal, masonry or composite materials consisting of different colors. As an example of this type of work, the ornamental ironworkers in Chicago erected the curtain wall that covers the 110 story steel structure of the Sears Tower office building. In addition to working on the skin of a building, ornamental ironworkers also install and erect metal stairways, cat walks, gratings, ladders, doors of all types, railings, fencing, gates, metal screens, elevator fronts, platforms and entranceways. A variety of materials are used in fabricating this type of work, for example, aluminum, steel, bronze and composites. This type of work is fastened to the structure by bolting or welding. Ornamental ironworkers are commonly referred to as "finishers” and are employed in construction of large commercial, industrial, and residential buildings.
Rigging is an integral part of the ironworking trade. Structural, reinforcing and ornamental ironworkers all do this type of work. Any ironworker that does rigging must have knowledge of fiber line, wire rope, hooks, skids, rollers, proper hand signals, and hoisting equipment, as well as have comprehensive training on safety issues. Ironworker riggers load, unload, move and set machinery, structural steel, curtain walls, and any other materials or work falling under the jurisdiction of the Ironworker. This work is done using equipment like power hoists, cranes, derricks, forklifts and aerial lifts, or by hand, using a series of blocks and tackle.
Structural, reinforcing, ornamental, and rigging ironworkers all perform welding to secure their work to the structure. Welding and burning equipment are considered "tools of the trade.” Almost every construction project on which an ironworker works requires these essential skills. In order to become proficient in these tasks, the ironworker apprentice and/or journeyman learns how to burn and weld at one of the 160 ironworker training centers located throughout North America. Upon completion of training, the ironworker student will have the opportunity to be tested to become a certified welder. This designation meets the American Welding Society’s welding codes normally specified by the jobsite engineer.
In addition to the five best-known categories of ironwork, which are explained above, ironworkers perform a wide variety of other specialized work. This includes, but is not limited to, architectural and structural precast, amusement equipment and rides, bank vaults and doors, canopies, conveyors, doors - metal and roll-up, offshore drilling platforms, geodesic domes, detention facilities (jail cells), metal buildings, overhead cranes, plant maintenance and towers.
It is important to mention that an ironworker must be willing to work in high places, have a good sense of balance, and be alert to potential danger to themselves and others. However, the apprenticeship program includes safety training with IHSA certified instructors so that the danger is minimized.