I have a dirty little confession to make. Those of you who’ve read my previous articles probably think of me as the “safety man” on the site, but I actually used to be the Pusher. I didn’t start out with that objective in mind, but by the time I reached my late 20s I knew I could do it, and that was enough to try. What I didn’t realize was how much steep and stony road lies between the knowing and the doing. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “pusher” as “a person or thing that pushes.”
It defines push as “an applied physical force designed to either relocate an object, move something in a specified way or vigorously clear obstacles” and “an adoptive effort to urge some action or course of events to conclusion by persistently applying pressure points for one or more purposes.”
Of course, there’s also the definition of a pusher as a seller of illegal drugs, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. There’s another definition of the word, one derived from a railroad term, which I believe best represents this persona: “A helper engine attached to the rear of a train, usually to provide extra power for climbing a steep or difficult grade.”
With this definition in mind, we can now picture the role played by the Pusher on a construction site. He may be a supervisor or a working foreman, but most likely he’ll simply be a crew member whose character is far from simple. He is always a leader who is respected - and perhaps considered intimidating - by his co-workers for both his skill sets and endurance limits. It isn’t necessary that he be the biggest or strongest, just the toughest under adverse conditions. And adverse conditions are ample commodities on most construction sites. Sometimes the “hill to be climbed” isn’t blazing Texas heat or arctic Minnesota blasts, but rather a job that has been compromised by a rapid onset of unforeseen disasters and delays. The Pusher is a self-directed individual who doesn’t need a starter’s pistol to know when it’s time to go or directions to get to the destination. The most effective Pushers actually live their lives a day or two in the future while simultaneously controlling events in the present without becoming exhausted.
While they may not necessarily order materials, schedule work, allocate manpower or even read blueprints, Pushers perform another vital function on any project. They motivate. He will often outlast the most rugged co-worker on the crew, standing alone “out where the buses don’t run.” Pushers do not last indefinitely, with only a few “pit bulls” enduring up to 10 or 15 years in the field before their wheels fall off. They must generally represent the crew in age and background in order to be effective. If the crew can’t identify with the Pusher, they won’t follow in his wake as he breaks a trail for them. So, regardless of his talent, if a prospective Pusher is 20 years older, a recent transplant from overseas, skilled in a different trade or independently wealthy and working as a hobby, he’s bound to fail. He is usually someone who’s been run by other Pushers and eventually grew to learn from it. He knows to enjoy those rare occasions when he’s been blessed with an A-Team to work with. My favorite crew was nicknamed “Berserk Builders,” a dubious honor bestowed on us by our peers.
A Pusher’s got to be one of them and always be one of them. Alone with his crew, they often call him “Boss,” like the “straw boss” on a haying crew who has wheat straw in his hair just like everyone else who worked hard all day. A Pusher is never officially designated by anyone above him in the food chain but usually surreptitiously recognized by an aware supervisor or foreman. The Trailer Rat (project manager) will always claim the responsibility for placing the Pusher on the lead crew with the gnarly tasks dead ahead. Regardless of how he got there, it’s more of an unspoken acknowledgement of trust than a written assignment of duty. By the way, Pushers can’t be paid more than anyone else, either, or they’ll be blood sacrificed on the altar of privilege. He has to simply work to live and live to work.
If you want to have a conversation with a Pusher, you should be prepared to fast-walk and fast-talk with both hands full. A Pusher will mystically ask you to first answer almost every question you planned to ask of him. He’ll listen hard to everyone, but when it’s time to act, it’s all over but the tussle. At that point everyone has their marching orders, and until the sky falls on you you’d better just be getting it done. “Butts and elbows” is all he wants to see. He knows his crew well enough to judge where their limits are as a group. To hell with individuals - you’re on a crew now. That’s one guy with five heads and 10 arms and legs. These crew limits are usually a few feet further than the best man’s capabilities will reach on their own. “Stop learning, you die,” I was once told when I confessed that I did not know what I was doing. Valuable time was sacrificed to teach me properly and the job still wrapped ahead of scheduled completion. He may or may not be knowledgeable in all of the OSHA standards, but he has the sense God gave him to stop the show whenever there’s any doubt as to the risks and look something up. He has a copy of 29 CFR on the job and he’s not afraid to use it. It may look like it’s been dragged behind a truck for a mile, but it still has all its pages.
Hangman’s humor is just another tool available to a Pusher. I knew one Pusher who took everyone’s truck keys first thing in the morning, thus ensuring 12-hour-plus workdays. Then he’d reward us all by buying the first round after work. All of us gave them up out of respect for him and pride in our promise of hard work. One short-timer had an extra set stashed in his pocket, but the Pusher was onto him and swiped the rotor from his distributor. He gave it back 30 minutes after the last guy had driven off site. He said, “Everybody reads from the same page or we’re all going home.” He was a two-tour Seabee in ’Nam used to working with a Skill saw in one hand and an M-16 in the other. It’s hard to get over on a good Pusher. He’s already a day ahead.
The Pusher's OutlookI know how the Pusher thinks because I was one for years. I pushed with a commercial crew of prefab installers in New England, a HUD-panelizing crew in Virginia and wild gang of left-coast, hatchet framers in Denver and San Francisco. I was taught by some of the best in the field, and, short of knuckle busting, always strived to meet their inflexible standards. Unfortunately, the role of the Pusher can also be filled by a hard-scrambling “goon” the employer hires and assigns to a crew to beat the clock and break the bank. The profit is the prime directive for this lug, and he doesn’t deserve to be a “straw boss.” This guy is a loser before he even starts the shift. Rather than leading by example, this guy commands by orders alone, thus fouling his own rudder. A crew that’s enjoyed a good Pusher beside them tends to ignore someone shouting behind them. This type of Pusher is disrespected whenever he attempts to micromanage good tradesmen with shortcut techniques and risky behaviors. Once with an on-site paneling crew in the mountains of West Virginia I replaced such a Pusher. The results were immediately gratifying. We arrived on site a month ahead of the assembly crews. We had 30 days to cut, store and panelize thousands of keyed walls and floor or roof cassettes for an entire 12-condo complex. My six-man crew was capable of feeding 10 five-man assembly crews all their structural components during six 12-hour-day weeks through my toughest job ever. My crew was as loyal and fierce as I needed them to be just below the timberline looking down on the eagles. It was memorable winter. The Pusher’s outlook meant:
• No one went anywhere on site without both hands full.
• Everyone was aware of the time all of the time.
• Everyone had a “buddy” and was responsible for his life and safety at all times.
• Material supply and handling procedures were drilled to Olympic standards.
• Two absolute requirements: Know who you reported to and who reported to you.
• There were no between-meal breaks except to hydrate (and that was often high altitude).
• Lunch was served hot but only took 15 minutes to consume without chatter.
• Porta-Johns were cleaned daily and located everywhere, eliminating extended toilet “expeditions.”
• Everything physically possible was mechanized. Hydraulic power was king.
• No drugs you couldn’t buy in the general store were permitted.
Needless to say, I went through dozens of hires until my entire crew was comprised of skilled multi-taskers, most of whom I suspected were raised by Type-A parents. They may not have been workaholics to begin with, but they either soon learned or went home. As straw boss, I was given fistfuls of cash to hand out as bonuses to the best whenever I saw fit to do it. It took a lot to impress me in those days, and not many could do it. The Pusher who coached me was a bull on steroids whenever his boots hit the dirt on our site. He would travel between jobs and reach ours once or twice a week. He would always work a full 12-hour day when he was there - I think to give me an example to go by. Once on a condo site he accidentally gun-nailed a 12-penny through his hand to a stud over his head. Without anyone nearby to help, he freed himself one-handed with a crowbar by installing a two-by-four across three studs to pry against. He spent a half hour struggling rather than disrupt the entire crew for the remainder of the shift. He kept his injury and self-rescue concealed until he asked me to drive his custom crew cab home for him - a request that revealed his level of pain. As usual, he was the first man on site the next morning by at least an hour. Pushing a job is not for the weak of heart - or weak of mind, for that matter. I estimate that one man in a hundred has the obsessive-compulsive skill sets to keep it up for more than two years. Once you’re done, you’re done. Pushers rarely take a sabbatical and come back to push again. I managed four to five years pushing cross-country, living out of a suitcase and eating two meals a day at Denny’s before I eventually gave in to a bad back.
While I was pushing out West, I learned to detect two defaults in the labor I would pick up on the road. The first was the “drifter.” Back then I had never heard of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), but this was exactly what they suffered from. Given a four-hour project, their concentration would keep them on task up to three hours max. A 10-minute job, it was only eight minutes before they lost the script and would be back at my side. They either imagined their job was completed or knew that it wasn’t correct but didn’t know why. Most would begin an aggressive defense of their work, while a few simply admitted to incompetence, but without much regret.
A second type of problem worker I would describe as the “tunnel-head,” who fell into the pit of tunnel vision. These workers would proudly and rapidly complete a task to its conclusion with defective tools, materials and craft. Conscientiously finishing ahead of any reasonable schedule, they would eventually point to the clock in defense of their substandard workmanship. A nod from the Pusher to the foreman and these workers were typically dismissed before lunch without so much as a guilty thought. Somewhere out there was his replacement. Hopefully he was someone in between the drifter and the tunnel-head and who wouldn’t tire easily.
The Pusher could never count on one employee’s abilities to compensate for another’s lack of ability in any job phase. In other words, everyone was expected to perform as lead carpenters on the job. With proper coaching and experience, everyone could take on anyone else’s responsibilities without stumbling. A Pusher always has his eyes open for his replacement, someone he could coach and mold into a Pusher in six months or a year. I noticed that some of the best and largest framing crews in any state got to that point by developing crews along those exact lines. They were all comprised of laborers who saw the words “Start Over Again Now” on the banner over every finish line they ever crossed.
Safety FirstRegardless of the speed that a competent Pusher established, I soon learned that, out of necessity, safety always came first. The hierarchy I learned early was: safety first, quality second, productivity third. To a Pusher, the real-deal cost of a construction accident always involved the irreplaceable loss of a critical crew member, an ensuing delay in the schedule and an almost insurmountable uninsured cost overrun to recoup on this and the next three jobs. Compromising the established standard of quality on any project for the sake of either safety or productivity was also a deal-breaker, as valuable time and material was inevitably lost during punch listing to repair or replace damaged or defective work. Pushers are the ultimate realists. They do not imagine what they cannot do and always visualize their quality work completed. The pride in accomplishing what most others could not was coin of the realm on most jobsites. The drugs of choice were caffeine and adrenaline, with a smattering of nicotine. The juice created by this admixture was brutal, but it was ultimately effective when conditions and schedules grew intolerable for the average worker. The offsetting dilemma for any Pusher was that when an accident rarely occurred it was often serious or fatal. As I was once told, ironworkers who live to tell about it aren’t the ones who fall. I have seen my share of near-miss fatalities, and it’s downright hair-raising when you can smell the Reaper’s breath. Many times after a prolonged recovery, the severe accident victim prematurely ages, becoming no longer capable of keeping up with the mental and physical pace on the crew. His heart may be in it but his nerves are arced out somewhere down circuit. Like a professional athlete, a construction worker injured beyond repair knows it and often retires rather than suffer the alternative. It’s a tough loss for the entire crew, and so it falls upon the Pusher to always hold the safety line taut between risk and reward.
Late in life I’ve grown into the field of construction safety. Within the past two decades and I have seen my new opportunities become firmly anchored in my past experience as a Pusher. I know exactly how the job gets done. Now I have an overriding responsibility to show Pushers how to get it done with zero accidents. It’s never easy, but you don’t have to explain “difficult” to a Pusher. That’s the ace they already hold. My new challenge is to show them how pride in workmanship can be transformed into pride in safe workmanship. I can look each of them in the eye and see myself looking back. I cannot lie to them or sugarcoat the learning curve involved in any new process. A Pusher wants exactly what he needs and nothing more. What I can offer them is just what they need: a standard toolbox of war-zone tested procedures to beat the clock and bust the bank without a single lost-work-time injury. As one Pusher used to tell me, “You get new feathers every day, so don’t worry if you lose a few today.” I think it’s even better if not a single one gets plucked. As I now tell my crews, “None of us actually get out of this world alive, but it’s not OK to die at work, so act accordingly.”