For millenia humans have created structures out of concrete. The Romans preferred concrete to all other construction materials, and their unique formula is the reason so many of ancient Rome’s monuments are still standing. The concrete we use today, while different from Roman concrete, is an excellent building material but as strong as it is, it has almost no tensile strength: it can’t withstand much pulling or stretching. For that reason builders reinforce it with rebar.
These metal rods, which have spaced patterns of bumps or swirls to help the concrete grip them, allow concrete to bend and flex without cracking or breaking. Rodbusters, the ironworkers who install rebar, have one of the most physically demanding jobs in construction.
Rodbusters will tell you that their shoulders especially take a pounding. They do a lot of lifting, and routinely carry heavy rebar on their shoulders. During hot weather, shoulder burns from hoisting hot steel rods are common. Here’s how one rodbuster describes his work:
Your back is shot, shoulders are raped, you can’t walk from being in the SLDL position all day long, and you literally have no free time aside from our [mandated] breaks.
Another rodbuster has pretty much the same view:
It’s good clean work…but it’s hell on the body. Carrying 150-180 pounds of 30′ rods all day gives your lower back, shoulders, and legs a beating. Not to mention tying [rebar] all day long as well. Picture being in the SLDL start position for five minutes at a time.
SLDL stands for Stiff Legged Deadlift.
Once a rodbuster positions the rebar, he ties it together with wire. He has to wrap wire securely around any area with two or more rebar sections that intersect or overlap. Tied corners are weak, so he installs bent rebar at corners. A job might involve cutting or welding.
Tying rebar requires fast, repetitive hand and arm movements while applying a lot of force. When a rodbuster ties rebar at ground level, he typically works in a stooped position, with his body bent deeply forward. A rodbuster informs us:
For a career as a rodbuster, you’re always bunched forward. You can always tell a rodbuster by how he looks.
Ironworkers in the United States have been represented since 1896 by the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers. But throughout the country there are rodbusters working without a union contract.
Some non-union rodbusters have walked off the job to protest working conditions. They report making significantly less than the national average for reinforcing ironworkers. They say they can work 18-hour days sometimes, without warning. There are no health benefits, and if there is an accident, it might not get reported to OSHA. Such protests have taken place in Vancouver, Washington; in Houston, Texas; and in Manchester, Tennessee.
Union or non-union, if you can set and tie rebar, you have a skill that’s in demand. Some ironworkers say that in their line of work, the sooner you get in and get out, the better off you are. As one of them put it:
I was a rodbuster for over 30 years, and if you go that route you will find out GOD fucking hates you. The first two weeks every muscle in your body will fucking hate you. But remember this, you are not the only one that will do it or has been through it, and you will survive.