Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood by Hilary Peach, Anvil Press, 2022
A woman navigating the challenges of the male workplace makes a good story and Hilary Peach does the genre proud in her new book, Thick Skin. A Canadian from BC, Peach writes of working for twenty years as a boilermaker on big projects in Canada and the U.S. She has worked at coal fired power plants, the tar sands in Alberta, pulp mills, gas plants, shipyards—big industrial power generating companies of all kinds, often staying in their company towns.
I enjoy reading about the work people do, especially hard dirty jobs like construction. In this book Peach tells us about the world of boilermakers, a subculture all its own. She describes the often difficult working conditions while she schools the reader about the intricacies and art of welding.
Most stories center on the men she works with, the psychopaths as well as the nice guys.
She encounters sexism and discrimination regularly as might be expected as the only woman among hundreds of men. But Peach always finds humor in the stories and often had me laughing out loud. Tradeswomen who go through the same challenges in our workplaces will delight in her creative comebacks and her various inventive ways of responding to harassment.
“How do we know it’s sexual harassment?” asks an apprentice.
“Just stop talking about your penises. That’s 80 percent of it,” say the women in the break room.
I loved this book. It’s well written and an engaging read with truly general appeal. And, of course, it reminds me of my own experience working construction.
Electricians, too, have a subculture of travelers, boomers, tramps, journeyworkers—those who travel around to different jobs—and my sisters and I used to dream of traveling. We thought it would be the greatest thing—that is until we heard from others who were on the road, mostly because they couldn’t get work in their own union locals. Sandy said she had to wear so many layers of clothes working in the Boston winter that her arms stuck straight out at her sides. Barbara of NYC told about burning refuse in high rises to keep warm and to help the concrete set, risking the hazards of smoke inhalation. Betsy complained of the Texas heat and miles of smelly porty potties.
Maybe we didn’t want to travel after all.
Hilary Peach does it for two decades—driving hundreds of miles, often in the driving rain or snow, to get to a job. Staying in work camps whose last century accommodations have been condemned and then reopened without remodel. Working 12 hour shifts happy for the overtime, working nights, working in cramped quarters in the freezing cold and boiling hot.
As the hard hat sticker says, “If you can’t stand the heat get the fuck out of the boiler.”
Peach does indeed develop a thick skin. A favorite maxim, repeated often:
“You don’t bleed in the shark pool.”
Later, as more women begin to come on to the jobs, they tell her conditions have improved. She writes, “When other women were on the job it made a remarkable difference. One other woman and you are no longer the freak, the anomaly. You have an ally. Three or more, and everything changes. We can no longer be isolated and targeted in the same way…Someone has to organize a second bathroom.”
Thank you Hilary Peach for making women look good out there and for paving the way for more women to enter this industry. A published poet, she’s now working on a novel. As boilermakers say at the end of a job, “See you on the next one.”
Molly Martin is a retired electrician whose latest book, Wonder Woman Electric to the Rescue, is available on Amazon and Kindle.