PITTSBURGH – A maintenance workshop that began 40 years ago has grown from a small gathering of 12 people to an international event.
In recent years, partners from Canada, the Netherlands, Brazil and even the Panama Canal have participated in the annual Lock Maintenance Workshop, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The gathering enables districts from across the corps to share lessons on improving maintenance for aging infrastructure.
“As time goes on, new requirements come out, especially in the engineering world. Things become stricter, so we learn from one another every year,” said Beth Schneller, the technical support branch chief for the Pittsburgh District.
The virtual 2022 gathering hosted more than 150 international attendants. The first workshop began in 1983 as a regional effort, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, with just a few Corps of Engineers districts attending. It started as a collaborative effort to learn from people’s successes and from one another’s failures and mistakes.
“People usually want to internalize or hide mistakes, but we’re comfortable enough with each other at these workshops. Not many others do what we do for a living, so we’re okay with saying, ‘I messed up here. Don’t do this. Here’s how I would have done it differently,’” said John Cheek, a technical manager with the Inland Navigation Design Center, who was heavily involved in organizing the workshop for more than two decades.
The workshop originated under the Ohio River Division, which later became the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the corps replaced many river locks from old wicket dams into modernized, high-lift locks that were much bigger and required new maintenance strategies.
Although operating locks has not changed much in the past half-century, Cheek said maintaining aging locks is a life-long learning process with new discoveries each year. In addition, repairs must adhere to new safety or engineering standards as the chambers age.
Cheek joked that the first health and safety booklet he ever received could fit inside his shirt pocket decades ago. Now, health and safety requirements fill a manual nearly a thousand pages long for necessary reasons. Additionally, engineering practices have improved, and innovative procedures solve maintenance challenges.
“We face a lot of new ways of doing things, so we exchange information at workshops to help other districts,” said Cheek.
Cheek and Schneller said if the workshop didn’t exist, the corps would risk making mistakes already solved elsewhere in the nation, delaying inland navigation and slowing down the economy. There would be several layers of adverse effects, Cheek said.
Over time, one solution that came out of the workshop was improving the process to replace miter gates. Miter gates are massive steel doors that open and close the lock chamber to allow boats through. Each gate can weigh 200 tons or more. Thanks to the annual workshops, districts no longer use a “jacking” method to remove gates, which can cause a lot of damage that requires additional repairs. Instead, the Louisville District introduced an innovative lift system that wasn’t destructive, and they shared the results with others.
“All the districts had been jacking gates for 20-plus years until someone introduced a better method during the workshop,” Cheek said.
Schneller said she learned about the Ensley Engineer Yard for the first time at this year’s workshop. The Corps of Engineers in Memphis, Tennessee operates the maintenance facility, and it can perform massive fabrications to meet districts’ needs. The facility has more than 200 employees with a dock of maintenance barges that stretch a mile long on the Mississippi River. Schneller said learning about this capability is significant because it saves the corps money from outsourcing fabrications that can be accomplished in-house.
Workshop attendees have become a close-knit group, Cheek said, and they stay in touch throughout the year when they need advice or just a second opinion.
“Just as the lakes and rivers cross division and district boundaries, so do the working relationships of the people that maintain the navigation structures. This workshop has been a major factor in building and strengthening those relationships,” he said.