We all complain about the inconveniences of our jobs from time to time. And in construction those inconveniences can be worse than most. Long hours, exposure to the weather, deadline pressure, months away from families - there are plenty of things to grumble about. But the next time you feel a complaint coming on, remember the workers on the Changuinola Hydroelectric Project in the depths of the Panamanian rainforest. They have to cope with all of the above - as well as scorpions creeping into lodgings, poisonous snakes dropping onto them from trees, black panthers, pumas - even 'killer bees'.
Close to the border with Costa Rica and 600km (370 miles) from the capital Panama City lies Changuinola, a fishing village named after the River Changuinola besides which it is built. Home for centuries to Indian tribes, the only previous outsiders to have ventured to this dense rainforest were banana farmers and adventurous tourists. But now Panama is changing. The substantial expansion of the country's famous canal is just one part of a building boom that is increasingly putting the Central American country onto the map and turning it into an important economic and tourist destination.
But this expansion is putting pressure on the country's infrastructure, not least its power generation capability. To overcome this, an ambitious plan is being put in place to harness the power of the country's rivers to provide a sustainable electricity supply. The Changuinola Hydroelectric Project Panama is the flagship scheme. A 90m (295ft) high roller compacted concrete dam, which will be 545m (1,788ft) wide and hold back a reservoir of 122 million cubic meters (159 million yd3) of water, and channel it down a 3,952m (12,970ft) long concrete lined headrace tunnel to a main 207 MW turbine. The project, when completed, will deliver 939 GWh of power a year.
AES Changuinola, a subsidiary of US-based AES Corporation, owns the project, with a consortium comprising of French based Alstom and two Danish companies E Pihl & Søn, and MT Højgaard. About 1,000 people have been at work on the project since it began in 2007, and 300 operators are allocated to 150 pieces of mobile equipment. Volvo is the main equipment provider on the project, supplying over 34 machines through its local dealer Commercial de Motores SA. The Volvo fleet consists of 16 A35D articulated haulers, 11 wheel loaders, two Rototilt-fitted EW180C wheeled excavators (for embankment grading), one 70 tonne EC700, a G710B motor grader and a BL60 backhoe loader. With a completion date set for 2011 machine reliability is of paramount importance. The entire Volvo fleet is protected by a 'Gold' customer support agreement - this takes responsibility for the repair and servicing Volvo also guarantees the fleet's mechanical availability will not dip below 90% between the machine hours of zero to 8,000 hours. In actual fact, total fleet availability after the first year of operation was an incredible 98.31%.
In charge of the Volvo fleet is 41 year old Tommy Hokkanen, who grew up in the Swedish town of Vaxjo, where Volvo's haulers are made. With the help of local supervisor Abraham Acosta, nine technicians and five containers full of parts and tools, Tommy and his team work 18 hours a day in two shifts, six days a week.
"It's hot, wet and sticky here, with plenty of wild animals and bugs to watch out for," smiles Tommy. "But these are not just difficult conditions for humans - it's tough for the machines too. It rains a lot and the equipment never stops, whatever the weather."
"The earth is red and sticky clay," agrees Abraham. "Even the underbody heaters on the haulers struggle to work. Sometimes it makes it stick even worse - and it becomes a big sticky cake of mud! But these machines are doing well, the EC700 is good at clearing, stripping overburden and mass excavation, while the wheel loaders are feeding crushers and supplying rocks from the river."
Getting good people to work in such extreme conditions is difficult, and Tommy and Abraham go to great lengths to train the operators. This will include training on the use of a side tipping bucket when the wheel loaders start to work inside the headrace tunnel.
Being a vast scheme covering such a wide area, local Indian tribes are literally living inside the construction area. This means that adults and children walk along the haul roads and have to be considered with every activity. Site safety is taken extremely seriously, with radar controlled speed cameras monitoring speed on haul roads. The penalties for breaking the rules are severe, and include losing the ability to drive on site - or being banned from the project altogether. This attitude is working, because apart from the odd snakebite, the site has been remarkably accident free.
"It's not just safety that is important," says Per Moberg, who is in overall charge of all machine types on the site. "We are in a delicate environment here, not only rainforest but also a 475,000 acre (1,922 hectares) Indian reservation. Therefore there can be no oil spillages, and if they do occur, for every 1 litre (2pt) of oil spilt, 1m3 (1.3yd3) of surrounding earth has to be completely removed off site. Fortunately, all machines have been very good on leaks and spills."
When the project is over, nature will be left to take over again. Trees will be replanted and the fantastic growth rate of tropical rainforests will quickly erase signs of human intervention. But until then Tommy and his team will have to endure the rain, the mud, the heat, the wild animals, the bugs and the long hours. "Volvo is committed to supplying these machines until 2011," grins Tommy. "So we are here to stay!"
TEXT: BRIAN O'SULLIVAN