Gary Stoker’s office has a spectacular view of Halifax Harbour.
The furnishings may be sparce and the Wi-Fi signal spotty, but for the 51-year-old and the team painting the underside of the A. Murray MacKay Bridge in Halifax, the natural air conditioning is awesome, even on the hottest summer day.
“There’s always a breeze up here,” he says in a clipped British accent as he gazes south across the harbour from wooden staging six-storeys above the water and 200 metres from the point where bridge meets the Halifax shoreline.
“You might not notice it from the ground, but it blows through from one side as the tide is coming in and blows through the other side when the tide is going out.”
Stoker has been a painter with Halifax Harbour Bridges for five years. He’s one of 14 unionized painters who spent the summer grinding away bits of rust, covering the bare metal spots with a white primer, followed by a grey primer and then a green enamel that’s demonstrably lighter than the green familiar to the motorists rattling across the bridge just 18-inches above the painter’s heads.
Melissa Lucas is one of two women on the paint crew. A millwright by training, she’d hoped to build a career in the oil and gas industry out west, but after repeatedly hearing she wasn’t going to make it because she was a woman, she returned home in search of a different opportunity.
“My father Craig has been a painter of the bridge since the ’70s. He encouraged me to try it out, and to my surprise, I love it. I can hold my own with the team and I’m recruiting anyone I can to join me.”
Every year HHB goes through hundreds of litres of special, weather-resistant paint designed to inhibit rust. Teams work on everything from the 90-metre towers to the salt-covered footings beaten repeatedly by the wake of passing cargo ships.
Contrary to public thinking, the work has more to do with maintaining the structural integrity of the bridges rather than contributing to their iconic look. A close peek beneath the bridge will show a camo-like patchwork quilt of touch-ups. It is only the towers that get a finish coat for colour uniformity.
Pneumatic systems, brushes and rollers are the tools of the trade. Spray painting launches too many droplets into the air that can land on houses, cars and businesses that operate beneath the bridges.
It takes seven years to paint the bridges from top to bottom and then it is time to start all over again, says Coatings Supervisor David MacFadden. A wash crew – workers who pressure-spray the steel frame to remove salt and dirt before it eats into the paint – was added in 2021 to try to get a longer life from the paint jobs.
That seven-year cycle may stretch to a decade as HHB, like other industries, struggles to find labourers in a climate when there are more jobs than people to fill them.
“We provide all the training required, but some people just aren’t interested in working at heights. There’s always one or two people who don’t come back after walking the catwalks on the first day,” says MacFadden.
Dion Curry, 54, is the most seasoned of the HHB painters. He’s spent every summer since 1990 painting the Halifax bridges.
A welder by training, he was also recruited to the painting team by a family member – an uncle, who suggested he might get a kick out of it.
“He was right. There’s not been a day I haven’t enjoyed.”
When he first started on the bridges, he said there was a different view of safety.
“We used unsecured ladders and had lap belts instead of harnesses. We came to work in sneakers and t-shirts and climbed around like monkeys.”
Painters today get extensive safety training and are provided with all safety equipment from steel-toed boots and coveralls, to helmet, harnesses, and hearing and eye protection.
The painting season lasts from April to October, leaving the painters to use their off-months to pursue activities from travel to auto mechanics.
Stoker remembers one winter when he was asked to help with an engineering inspection and he had to remove multiple layers of paint to allow a bare steel inspection.
“I wasn’t up there for four hours and I was an ice cube. I don’t remember the result of the inspection, but my right hand gets numb just thinking about it. Painting under the bridge in February is not a place anyone wants to be.”