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Boilermakers and boilermaker mechanics construct, assemble, and repair boilers, vats, tanks, and other large metal vessels designed to hold liquids and gases. Following blueprints, they lay out, cut, fit, bolt, weld, and rivet together heavy metal plates, boiler tubes, and castings. Boilermaker mechanics maintain and repair boilers and other vessels made by boilermakers. There are approximately 19,000 boilermakers working in the United States.
Boilers first became important during the industrial revolution, when steam power emerged as a practical way to drive various kinds of machinery. A boiler is an apparatus that heats a liquid, usually water, and converts it to vapor. Boilers were first made and used in England at the beginning of the 18th century. Manufacturers first used iron and then began using steel in boilers because steel could withstand more heat and pressure in use. During the 19th and 20th centuries, a series of design changes and improved alloys made boilers useful in a wide variety of industrial applications.
Because boilers are often operated at extremely high pressures, faulty construction, bad repairs, or improper operation can be very dangerous. Explosions were not uncommon in the early years of the industry before safety measures were instituted and construction methods improved. During the late 19th century, regulations were put in place in some localities to prevent accidents caused by careless construction. Workers in the industry began organizing in the 1880s.
By 1893, the two unions representing workers in boiler-making and similar trades met in Chicago to unite into what was then called the International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers.
It was not until 1908, however, that rules and regulations were developed to apply to any sizable area. Massachusetts created a Board of Boiler Rules in that year, and Ohio followed with its own set of rules in 1911. By 1934, 19 states and 15 cities had such codes. Today, as a result of the combined efforts of industry, labor unions, and government, safety codes are practically universal. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers have been leaders in the promotion and enforcement of the codes of safe manufacture and maintenance.
Some boilermakers and boilermaker mechanics work at or near the site where the boiler, tank, or vat is installed. Such sites include petroleum refineries, schools, and other institutions with large heating plants, factories where boilers are used to generate power to run machines, factories that make and store products such as chemicals or beer in large tanks, and atomic energy plants. Others work in shops or factories where boilers and other large vessels are manufactured.
Boilermakers who do layout work usually work in a shop or factory. These workers follow drawings, blueprints, and patterns to mark pieces of metal plate and tubing indicating how the metal will be cut and shaped by other workers into the sections of vessels. Once the sections are fabricated, other workers at the shop, called fitters, temporarily put together the plates and the framework of the vessels. They check the drawings and other specifications and bolt or tack-weld pieces together to be sure that the parts fit properly.
In doing the final assembly at the site, boilermakers first refer to blueprints and mark off dimensions on the base that has been prepared for the finished vessel. They use measuring devices, straightedges, and transits. They attach rigging equipment such as hoists, jacks, and rollers to any prefabricated sections of the vessel that are so large they must be lifted into place with cranes. After crane operators move the sections to the correct positions, the boilermakers fine-tune the alignment of the parts. They use levels and check plumb lines and then secure the sections in place with wedges and turnbuckles. With cutting torches, files, and grinders, they remove irregularities and precisely adjust the fit and finally weld and rivet the sections together. They may also attach other tubing, valves, gauges, or other parts to the vessel and then test the container for leaks and defects.
Boilermakers also work in shipbuilding and in repairing the hulls, bulkheads, and decks of iron ships. In a typical repair, boilermakers first remove damaged metal plates by drilling out rivets and cutting off rivet heads with a chipping hammer. Then they take measurements of the damaged plates or make wooden patterns of them so that new plates can be made. They install the new plates, reaming and aligning rivet holes, then fastening on the plates by driving in rivets. Sometimes similar work is done on ships’ boilers, condensers, evaporators, loaders, gratings, and stacks. Field construction boilermakers work outdoors and move from one geographic location to another. They join construction teams in erecting and repairing pressure vessels, air pollution equipment, blast furnaces, water treatment plants, storage tanks, and stacks and liners. They can be involved in the erection of a 750,000-gallon water storage tank, the placement of a nuclear power plant reactor dome, or the construction of components on a hydroelectric power station.
Boilermaker mechanics maintain and repair boilers and other vessels. They routinely clean or direct others to clean boilers, and they inspect fittings, valves, tubes, controls, and other parts. When necessary, they check the vessels to identify specific weaknesses or sources of trouble. They update components, such as burners and boiler tubes, to make them as efficient as possible. They dismantle the units to replace worn or defective parts, using hand and power tools, gas torches, and welding equipment. Sometimes repairs require that they use metalworking machinery, such as power shears and presses to Cut and shape parts to specification. They strengthen joints and supports, and they put patches on weak areas of metal plates. Like fabrication and installation work, all repairs must be done in compliance with state and local safety codes.
A high school diploma is required for all applicants to the boiler-making trade. In the past, people have become boilermakers through on-the-job training, but apprenticeships are now strongly recommended. To gain an apprenticeship, an applicant must score well on an aptitude test. You can prepare yourself for this test and the career by taking math classes and shop classes throughout high school. Courses that give you the opportunity to learn blueprint reading, welding, and metalworking are especially helpful.
Formal apprenticeships usually last four years. An apprentice receives practical training while working as a helper under the supervision of an experienced boilermaker. In addition to working, trainees attend classes in the technical aspects of the trade. Apprentices study subjects such as blueprint reading, layout, welding techniques, mechanical drawing, the physics and chemistry of various metals, and applied mathematics. While on the job, apprentices practice the knowledge they have acquired in the classroom. They develop such skills as using rigging and hoisting equipment, welding, riveting, and installing auxiliary devices and tubes onto vessels.
Mechanical aptitude and manual dexterity are important characteristics for prospective boilermakers. Because the work can be very strenuous, stamina is needed for jobs that require a great deal of bending, stooping, squatting, or reaching. Before they begin work, boilermakers may need to pass a physical examination showing that they are in good enough health to do the work safely. On the job, they must be able to work well despite noisy surroundings, odors, working at heights or in small, enclosed spaces, and other discomforts and dangers. It is also important that they be cautious and careful in their work and that they closely follow safety rules.
You may be able to observe boilermakers or workers who use similar skills as they work on construction projects or repair and maintenance jobs. For example, welders and equipment operators lifting heavy objects with elaborate rigging can sometimes be seen working at sites where large buildings are being erected. High school shop courses such as blueprint reading and metalworking can give you an idea of some of the activities of boilermakers. With the help of shop teachers or guidance counselors, you may be able to arrange to talk with people working in the trade. Information may also be obtained by contacting the local union-management committee in charge of apprenticeships for boilermakers.
Approximately 19,000 boilermakers work in the United States. Of that number, nearly 70 percent work in the construction industry. Approximately 14 percent work in manufacturing, employed primarily in boiler manufacturing shops, iron and steel plants, petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and shipyards. Still others work for boiler repair firms, for railroads, and in navy shipyards and federal power facilities.
There are a limited number of apprenticeships available in boiler-making; only the best applicants are accepted, and there may be a waiting period before the apprenticeship starts. Sometimes workers begin as helpers in repair shops and enter formal apprenticeships later. These helper jobs are often advertised in newspapers. Vocational and technical schools and sometimes high schools with metal shop courses may also help their graduates locate such positions. Other good approaches are to apply directly to employers and to contact the local office of the state employment service.
Upon completing their training programs, apprentices qualify as journeymen boilermakers. With experience and the right kind of leadership abilities, boilermakers may be able to advance to supervisory positions. In fabrication shops, layout workers and fitters who start as helpers can learn the skills they need in about two years. In time, they may move up to become shop supervisors, or they may decide to become boilermakers who work on-site to assemble vessels.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median hourly wage for boilermakers in 2006 was $22.58. For full-time work at 40 hours per week, this wage translates into a median annual income of $46,960. The department also reported that the lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $14.62 per hour, or less than approximately $30,410 per year for full-time work. At the other end of the pay scale, the highest paid 10 percent made more than $34.22 per hour (approximately $71,170 annually).
According to the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, annual earnings vary greatly because of the temporary, cyclical nature of the work. Apprentices start at about 60 percent of journeyman wages. Earnings also vary according to the part of the country where boilermakers work, the industry that employs them, and their level of skill and experience. Boilermakers tend to make more than boilermaker mechanics. Among employees in boiler-fabrication shops, layout workers generally earn more while fitters earn less.
Both layout workers and fitters normally work indoors; therefore, their earnings are not limited by seasonal variations in weather. Most boilermakers are members of unions, and union contracts set their wages and benefits. The largest union is the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers, and Helpers. Other boilermakers are members of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America; the United Steelworkers of America; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. Among the fringe benefits established under union con- tracts are health insurance, pension plans, and paid vacation time.
Boilermaking tends to be more hazardous than many other occupations. Boilermakers often work with dangerous tools and equipment; they must manage heavy materials; and they may climb to heights to do installation or repair work. Despite great progress in preventing accidents, the rate of on-the-job injuries for boilermakers remains higher than the average for all manufacturing industries. Employer and union safety programs and standards set by the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are helping to control dangerous conditions and reduce accidents.
The work often requires physical exertion and may be carried on in extremely hot, poorly ventilated, noisy, and damp places. At times it's necessary to work in cramped quarters inside boilers, vats, or tanks. At other times, workers must handle materials and equipment several stories above ground level. Sometimes installation workers work on jobs that require them to remain away from home for considerable periods of time.
To protect against injury, boilermakers and mechanics use a variety of special clothing and equipment, such as hard hats, safety glasses and shoes, harnesses, and respirators. A 40-hour week is average, but in some jobs, deadlines may require overtime.
Employment of boilermakers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. One reason for this lagging growth is the cur rent trend of repairing and retrofitting, rather than replacing, boilers. In addition, the smaller boilers currently being used require less on-site assembly. Finally, the automation of production technologies and the increasing use of imported boilers will cut down on the need for boilermakers. An increasing number of boilermakers will be employed by utilities, as these organizations seek to upgrade their boiler systems to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act.
During economic downturns, boilermakers, including layout workers and fitters, may be laid off because many industries stop expanding their operations and install very few new boilers. On the other hand, boilermaker mechanics are less affected by downturns because they work more on maintaining and repairing existing equipment, which requires their services regardless of economic conditions.
Despite average growth, there will be openings for boilermakers every year as experienced workers leave the field. Workers who have completed apprenticeships will have the best opportunities for good jobs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For information about boilermaker apprenticeships contact:
Boilermakers National Joint Apprenticeship Program
1017 North 9th Street
Kansas City, KS 66101-2624
For additional career information, contact:
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders,
Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers, AFL-CIO
753 State Avenue, Suite 570
Kansas City, KS 66101-2511
Tel: 913-371-2640 /http://www.boilermakers.org