The changing face of tunneling 23 Sep 2015

Elisa Comis, Project Engineer, The Robbins Company
Elisa Comis, now of The Robbins Company, has worked in the tunnelling industry for more than a decade. Here she talks with her manager, Steve Chorley, to get the male perspective on women in tunneling.

I have worked for The Robbins Company for five years now and am enjoying every minute of it. It is thanks to Steve Chorley, Field Service Director of Robbins, that I have this great job.

I met Steve for the first time in an Irish pub in Hong Kong where I was working as TBM engineer at the Tsuen Wan Tunnel jobsite for Italian construction company Seli. It was the second jobsite I had worked on, after the Gilgel Gibe II hydro project in Ethiopia and a lot had changed. I could remember that it took me more than a year to convince my manager in Italy to assign me to a field job in Ethiopia. They preferred I work only on TBM assemblies in the workshop in Rome.

Steve Chorley (leaning against the cutterhead) and Elisa Comis (far right), working with the team on the AMR tproject cutterhead in India
Steve Chorley (leaning against the cutterhead) and Elisa Comis (far right), working with the team on the AMR tproject cutterhead in India

Despite my past experiences, it took only one hour and two pints of Guinness for Steve to propose me a job as Field Service Engineer at a remote jobsite in India. After that (in 2010) he sent me to several other jobsites around the world until I was transferred to the engineering department in the Robbins head office in Solon, Ohio, USA. Even now Steve and I are working closely together on several projects, and more recently we both moved temporarily to Italy for the factory assembly of two double shield TBMs for the GKI hydro project in Austria. There, we shared the same container office. One day, I raised my head from my work and realized that for the first time, I was not the only woman in that office!

There were two more ladies: the Testing & Commissioning Engineer and the Logistics Coordinator, both hired by Steve after me. In the same office, together with us, the Assembly Supervisor and the Project Manager were men, so we were 50/50! We started to joke about it and Steve asked me, “Guess who started this craziness?” referring back to my hiring date in Hong Kong. After that I learned that Steve was hiring two more women as logistic coordinators, one Ukrainian lady working on a project in Russia and one Iranian lady being trained as a logistics coordinator for an upcoming project in Turkey.

I have been thinking a lot about this change and I believe that this is still a rare case of women integrating into the tunneling business, and in particular into field service. However, I wonder if the great working environment and the results this team has achieved on this project in Italy for the GKI hydro scheme are partially due to the presence of women. Well, who better to answer these questions than Steve?

Comis: What is your working background?

Chorley: I started working in mining in the coal industry in the UK in 1981. My first TBM tunnel job was on the Channel Tunnel in 1989. I have been in the tunnel industry ever since working on major projects in Lesotho, Hong Kong, Taiwan and around the world in Spain, Malaysia, Russia, India, Turkey, and more places than I care to mention here. I have been working at Robbins since 2003, first as the Field Service Electrical Engineer, and then as the International Field Service Manager in 2005 and finally the Field Service Director in 2009. I have been working in that role ever since.

Comis: Did you work with other women in the tunneling business prior hiring me? If yes, what were their job roles?

Chorley: On the Channel Tunnel we worked alongside women on the machines there. We had a couple of civil engineers on the shifts at the beginning of the project; however, they all found new work and by the time the machines broke through I do not think there was a single woman working on the machines. The only places I have really come across women working in this industry are in the UK where women take roles as engineers or in safety, and in China. Within Robbins China we have two very good woman welders whose work is as good as anyone I have ever seen. Chinese contractors tend to hire women as crane operators or locomotive drivers so there is also some precedence.

Comis stands with two other women in the project team of the GKI project TBMs
Comis stands with two other women in the project team of the GKI project TBMs

Comis: What was your impression of me when we first met at Delaney’s Irish Pub in Hong Kong?

Chorley: “One of the lads” is a term that comes to mind. This might sound a bit sexist but you talked with knowledge, understood the world we live in, and could relate to what I was saying and what I expected. So really you were just someone else who worked in tunneling. Besides, anyone drinking Guinness is already on the path to righteousness!

Comis: Were you concerned about sending me to a jobsite in a remote area in India?

Chorley: To me it really boils down to the individual. I did not even take into consideration that there might be a gender issue. I knew you had worked in Ethiopia and were working in Hong Kong. You had seen remote locations and were now living and working in the big city. Hong Kong can be as daunting as working in a remote location for many different reasons.

Anyone prepared to work in Field Service can expect conditions that could be considered ‘far from ideal’ from time to time. Working in remote locations, living on camps away from home, or not being able to simply walk down the street to the supermarket or pub brings a whole new dynamic to a situation. It takes a certain mindset for anyone to be able to go and work on a project that is in a remote location and you have to respect anyone and everyone who does it and is prepared to see a project through.

Comis: Did you get any complaints and/or comments from the crew at site about you sending a woman there? What was your response to them?

Chorley: Loads of complaints, loads of comments, people asking me, “Are you soft in the head? Have you gone crazy!?” This industry in many ways is perceived as a man’s world. Some of the projects I have worked on in other countries would not even consider allowing a woman in the tunnel; too many superstitions. Basically I just laughed all the comments off, it did not matter to me if you were a woman, what is more important is I thought you had a role to play and knew your job. We were lacking in a certain area of that project and you had the qualifications and knowledge to fill the role and get the job done.

Comis: Did my outcome at the jobsites surprise you? If yes, in which way(s)?

Chorley: Steve: Well your work did not surprise me. As I said, I had no doubt you could do the job. What was surprising was how quickly you got accepted at site by the rest of the crew. There was a fair bit of negativity as I recall when I informed the team you were on the way there. Respect needs to be earned and to do that you need to have (a) knowledge of your job, (b) the right attitude with your team and (c) the bravery to lead from the front if needed. I think you proved yourself and got the respect of your team much quicker than I expected. This was good to see from my point of view, as it went a long way in terms of putting people at ease with women working in field service.

Comis oversees assembly of an AMR 1 TBM in India
Comis oversees assembly of an AMR 1 TBM in India

Comis: How many women did you hire in the last three years, and for which positions?

Chorley: I have hired four other women since I hired you. Three of them work in shipping and logistics at site. They are responsible for receiving all machine parts as they arrive, log their arrival, and arrange staging areas in the order in which the assembly team will need the parts. This means they have to be very familiar with all of the terminology of machine components, be able to identify them, understand where they go on the machine and what they are used for. They don’t just do that though. I think all of them speak at least three languages, and many times they are on the machines explaining systems to contractors, giving help with drawings and helping with translation for our guys. The other woman is our team leader for testing and commissioning of machines in the workshop and in the field.

Comis: Do you think that a woman’s approach to a tunneling job is different from a man’s? If yes, in which way(s)?

Chorley: The main difference I see is in attention to the details. Women tend to look more closely into issues and make sure everything is correct in all aspects of the job they are doing. We (men) tend to let things go with an “it will be alright” or “we will sort it later” attitude. One area where this has really benefitted Robbins is with the TBM testing and commissioning. We were often “fire fighting” on site – dealing with last-minute, urgent issues – before we formed our own internal testing and commissioning team with a woman as the team leader. Whilst they are part of the field service team, to a large degree they work autonomously and make sure machine systems are properly installed, tested and working both in the shop and on site. It makes for a much easier TBM start up.

Comis: Have you noticed any change in a jobsite crew that might be related to the introduction of women in the team?

Chorley: Not really, I would like to think that everyone working with us simply feels part of the team and is welcomed as an equal. I do not think you can ask for more than that.

Comis: In your opinion what are the best positions for women in the tunneling business?

Chorley: Any and all where attention to detail is required. From a field service perspective I would encourage women to consider operating the machine or the erector, being hired as PLC or hydraulic technicians or engineers in any discipline, or taking on roles in logistics. I once worked on a project in Taiwan and visited a tunneling project in Taipei. Women were operating the EPB machines there. What was interesting was that they were operating them from the surface in a control room and controlling the machine and activities from that room. Women operating TBMs is not something new.

Comis: What can women do to succeed in this business?

Chorley: Good question – it is certainly tough to get through the door in a lot of companies. If you manage to get through the door just do the job to the best of your ability. Never be afraid to ask a question or ask for help; it is an uphill battle when you are starting out for sure. Gaining the respect of the crew would be a key factor in succeeding in my mind. You do not have to gain the respect of the person who hired you, as they already believe in you, or you would not be there. Isn’t this the same for everyone though?

Comis: Will you keep hiring women for the Robbins Field Service Department?

Chorley: From my point of view, absolutely. Everyone is equal as far as I am concerned; I will consider anyone and everyone for a position in Field Service.

Comis: Do you think we can both be considered trendsetters?

Chorley: I am not sure really. I think historically there have been women involved in tunneling in some form or other or at a certain level for a long time. We might be setting some trend related to TBM manufacturers and field service departments but I think we base these ideas on, let us say, more Western values. I have seen many women involved in tunneling projects in Japan, China and Russia.

Comis: Lastly, do you think that a mixed crew of men and women can have more success on a project? Why or why not?

Chorley: Another good question. Theoretically I think the answer would be yes, simply because we underestimate how important paying attention to the details really is. I think women would operate the machinery with more care and attention and would tend to look after the equipment better than many personnel currently doing the job today. However, with the limited number of women working in tunneling or on TBMs right now, it is going to take some time to prove the theory.


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