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Ironworking is a time-honoured, heavy construction job. It is the job title of a special breed of men and women who appear to have an aptitude for working both at extreme heights and at extreme ranges of environmental conditions. Ironworking came into being during the late 19th Century, during the development of high-rise construction (at that time between three - six storeys or levels). Most ironworking at that time was made up of built-up steel beams, which were used to reinforce block and brick construction.

In the 20th Century, the use of column and beam structural supports came into general practice. Better methods of manufacturing rolled steel beams and the use of connections made with formed rivets, allowed for stronger structures and, thus, for heights over six storeys. In later years, different forms of connecting fasteners were developed, such as tensioned bolts and welded 'moment' connections, as well as production with stronger metal alloys.

These developments in construction technology allowed buildings to reach much greater heights, and it was not uncommon to find buildings with 60 storeys or more. In essence, these buildings had all the amenities of a small city integrated into one building complex. These buildings were quite impressive and a major source of pride for the populace of each country that they were built in. This is one reason why they were often targeted by terrorist activities, such as the one that took place against the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September, 2001.

Scope of Work

Ironworkers often toil in extreme weather conditions, including extreme hot and cold temperatures. Although they seldom work in rain or heavy snow, it is not uncommon to see ironworkers chipping ice from beams and decking in order to work at a modest amount of safety1. These men and women often carry anywhere from 40 - 80 pounds of tools and material on workbelts while working at extreme heights. Typically, ironworkers are men and women who are more or less on the fringes of society. Many of the Native American descent went into the ironworking trade in the larger cities, and the rumour that Native Americans were not afraid of heights proliferated in the construction trade due to this practice. The issue of working at great heights gave the ironworking trade the reputation of being one of the more dangerous occupations. Ironworkers are responsible for many tasks:

  • They are skilled in machinery moving, utilising many different techniques of relocating equipment that often weigh numerous tons.

  • They lay the decking (both floor and roof) onto the structures before the actual placement of concrete or other floor and roofing applications.

  • They install reinforcing rods, which are placed for strengthening concrete substructures.

Basic Tools

Ironworkers use many different specialised tools that have both colourful and descriptive names. The basic tools of the structural ironworker are:

  • Various spud wrenches
  • Sleaver bar
  • Bull pin
  • Bolt bags
  • Connecting bolt
  • Tape measure
  • Ratchet and socket
  • 4 - 8 pound beater (sledge hammer)
  • Torpedo level
  • Tip cleaners
  • Torch striker
  • Crescent wrench

The 'Rodbuster' ironworker carries his 'kleins' (a type of plier), dikes (wire cutters), 6' stick rule, wire reel, scabbard, tape measure, tip cleaner, striker, and sometimes a bolt bag. The machinery mover ironworker carries an assortment of wrenches, clamps, various rulers and tape measures, various levels, various hammers and sledges, files, screwdrivers, and other assorted tools. Each type of ironworker has an assortment, if not all, of the above tools at his disposal, as well as other tools that are not mentioned.


Many Ironworkers are members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers. This Union provides training programs (Apprenticeships) that vary in length from three - five years. These are geared towards placing highly skilled workers at the disposal of construction contractors. Due to the intensive training of these apprentice Ironworkers, the safety and quality of work has increased on a yearly basis. Unions have provided the ironworker with a power for bargaining with the contractors to ensure safe working conditions and fair wages for work performed. In return, the Unions ensure contractors will receive a well-trained journeyman for the jobs that are needed. This is not to say that all ironworkers are Union members. There are many ironworkers that are not with the Union, but they are generally lower paid and do not have the security that a Union can provide.

Further Reading with BBCi

1A modest amount of safety to an ironworker seems to mean extremely dangerous to the average human being.

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