May 05, AU Edition

Would you want a job where getting vomited on or dodging a falling telephone pole was considered part of the normal 9-to-5 routine? Probably not. But luckily for the rest of us, some men and women do: they fix our homes, rescue us when we’re in trouble, and take care of society’s forgotten. They’re the Australians who really are


roofer1.jpgDAVE EDWARDS,
Sydney, NSW
Roofer, plumber & carpenter

Dave Edwards has been a Sydney-based roofer, plumber and carpenter for the last seven years, specializing in inner-city renovations. ‘My work involves variety of tasks – I’ve been roofing, laying floorboards, pouring concrete, doing formwork, framing, bricklaying, digging foundations, all aspects of building pretty much. A lot of manual labour is involved in the job.’
While Mother Nature does not make any special allowances for those who toil outdoors all day, your typical roof carpenter isn’t going to let discomfort stop him from earning a buck.
‘Oh yeah, you work all year round! You could be digging trenches, digging footings in 42-degree heat eight hours or more a day – and you’ve got a lot of heavy lugging around to do’, he says.
‘Because you have these tasks to do – pouring concrete, putting up the frame-work, and so on, you need to string it all together at the right time. You can’t just postpone everything because of inconvenience.’
Dave’s work over the last few years has demanded a combination of brain and brawn.

‘Say, in the inner city where I work, access to the sites can be pretty bad. You’ve got to take all the material through the front door – all the heavy materials. Throughout all of this, you have to be perfectly organized, and have your mind on the job constantly. It’s extremely labour-intensive, yet you also have to be thinking a couple of weeks ahead all the time and have everything set up in the right order. You can’t store much on site, so when you need things, they have to turn up and get installed right away.’
Combining hard labour with strategic foresight in often uncompromising weather is not everyone’s cup of tea: ‘It can be a logistical nightmare. There are a lot of situations where you might have outdoor work but if it is going to rain, you can’t just stop. The project has to continue somehow – if that means working in the rain, then you have to do it.’
Is he complaining? Of course not – he loves his job. But for Edwards, enjoying work time is balanced by the daily trials and tribulations that come with servicing the Sydney housing boom.
By Steve Edwards
Melbourne, Victoria
Disability Support Worker

I have been knocked unconscious on several occasions, thrown down a cliff, had my thumb bitten off, been saturated in deliberate projectile vomit, punched and kicked,’ says Melissa Young.
Melissa’s not a member of the SAS, part of a new extreme fitness craze, or a contestant on a Japanese game show. For much of her working life Melissa has been a disability support worker.
While it sounds dangerous, Melissa talks about her job with humour and perspective. It is obvious she has a passion for people and for bringing quality to their lives. These incidents were all cases of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she says, though she admits that supporting people with a disability is challenging.
Despite the dangers and humiliations, Melissa says the job was a fabulous experience. ‘The variety in the work is incredible. Some people may have mild learning disabilities, but they can be the best friends you’ve ever had. Other people may have much higher support needs due to behavioural issues.’
It is the issue of behaviour that often places disability support workers in threatening situations.
Like anyone, people with a disability get angry and frustrated, and support workers must diffuse those emotions that may cause their clients to become violent and aggressive. Melissa says the answer lies in being able to communicate and treat people with respect.
Melissa recalls one incident where she was concerned that a person she was working with had drowned. It was a scary moment. She went over to the side of the spa at the public pool they were at and as she bent down to try and see through the bubbles the fist of a powerfully-built woman emerged from the foam and left Melissa out cold on the tiles.
Why would anyone return to work after an event like that?
‘I really enjoyed the challenges of working with people who have behavioural issues. This area does have elements which can be “dangerous”, but with the right supports it works out fine.’
Melissa just left disability support to become a training consultant for the Victorian State government, which is role that allows her to continue to manage risk and support the disability workforce.
She is thrilled that support workers are now trained to engage laterally with their work. Melissa adds that by treating people with disabilities with rescect and supporting their needs, a lot of the tougher aspects of the job can be avoided.
By Dan Donahoo
Sydney, NSW
Paramedic, Westpac Air Ambulance Service

The Westpac Air Ambulance Service team is the ultimate go-anywhere rescue service, and Special Casualty Access Team member Chris Wilkinson is one of the men who make the famous chopper a lifeline to hundreds of Australians every year. Chris is trained in abseiling and caving, and can work in snow and at sea as well. The job is all about teamwork and commitment, and it allows some truly amazing feats – like the team’s specially-developed technique for plucking people from the surf in just three to five seconds.
‘I always wanted to be a paramedic’ Chris says. He started his training almost two decades ago, and now at age 42 he is one of only 64 senior paramedics in all of NSW.
‘This is very difficult training, 55 to 65 per cent fail, with intense physical and mental discipline, and the training is always ongoing and developing. You have to have the right temperament and the will to succeed’.
For Wilkinson, a typical day might involve attending to a motorcycle accident or finding lost bushwalkers, but his proudest achievement is the four bravery medals he received for his work after the infamous 1997 Thredbo avalanche in the Snowy Mountains. Eighteen people were killed; Chris rescued the sole survivor.
‘It was thirty-six hours later when we found him. I tunneled through tons of unstable rubble to find him deep in the darkness, it was minus-twelve degrees, and I stayed with him for eleven hours’, he recalls.
This is human endeavor and instinctual willingness to help at its highest level. When asked if he still gets nervous, he admits, ‘When you’re suspended on a wire three hundred feet above treacherous surf it will always get the heart pumping!’
By Ben Wyatt
builder1 copy.jpgMATT BOYLE,
Castlemaine, Victoria
Alternative Builder

Matt Boyle doesn’t build houses like other people. Half-builder and half-artist, his methods could easily be described as unconventional. While the finished product of his work is stunning, his on-site safety issues are more challenging than your run-of-the-mill house site.
A chainsaw is Matt’s tool of choice. ‘If a sharp chainsaw is going right, you can get to spots you can’t get into with any power tool,’ he says. ‘It is probably the first thing you have in your trailer.’
With chainsaws, a 60-year-old army truck, 20-year-old crane and a penchant for mud bricks, Matt works with owner-builders to create unique homes.
Known for his scavenging ability, his building style is highlighted by the use of heavy recycled materials: poles, stone and steel. It gives his houses solidness and the feeling they are connected with the earth. But he notes that in working with these materials, the biggest challenge is getting them all on-site. Many materials are tough to work with – especially telephone poles.
‘We’ve had some hairy moments. We were lifting one heavy beam up, and it started slipping out of the sling. The crane was shaking off its chocks and everyone had to run around and move fast. It was alright, but there was no other machine we could get in to do it.’ Not surprisingly, the safety issue demands constant attention.
Matt and his crew build organically. Once a wall starts to go up, they work with how the space feels.
‘Building like this, you work around yourself all the time. Having versatility is crucial – being able to change things and get stuff right,’ he says.
‘One of the toughest things is scaffolding. When we build a house, we basically build a whole house outside it before we start. I think we’ve built scaffolding one hundred times in different ways for different jobs.’
Over time, carrying mud bricks, manoeuvring 10-metre telephone poles and working with solid timbers and steel has taken its toll.
‘I’m turning 30 this year, and I’ve done a nerve in my lower back. I’ve got to be careful now. I think that’s probably more from stupidity. If you take it a bit slower and have a few guys there, it is smarter.’
For this reason, Matt always makes sure his workers are aware of the risks: ‘You’re never doing the same thing twice. You’re always “winging it”. You have to keep learning stuff all the time. It isn’t stuff you can get out of a book. On all the trailers now, we have little safety messages so you are always thinking about it. You don’t want anyone ending up paraplegic or anything. At the end of the day, it’s just a house.’
By Dan Donahoo