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A steel monkey is an iron or steelworker who specializes in working at great heights, such as those involved in the construction of a skyscraper or bridge. Working as a steel monkey can be quite hazardous, as falls from great heights can be deadly, even with a safety harness, and as a result, these specialized ironworkers often command a high rate of pay to compensate for the potential dangers of their jobs.
When any sort of steel structure is erected, it needs to be built piece by piece from the ground up. While working on or close to the ground, this is termed “low steel,” and while it can still be dangerous, it is relatively safe when compared to the “high steel” in the upper reaches of the structure as it is built. Many steel monkeys are part of raising gangs, the crews which install new beams to expand the height of the structure, while others follow behind to rivet beams in place and strengthen the structure, ensuring that it is sound.
The term “steel monkey” is American in origin, and it is most commonly used by iron and steelworkers in the United States. Chicago and New York, two strongholds of framed skyscraper construction, boast a high number of steel monkeys, including many Native Americans. Members of the Mohawk tribe in particular have been involved in ironwork for multiple generations, and they are famous in the construction community for their talent and boldness.
Several skills are required in a steel monkey, beyond the basic ability to work with steel and iron. Steel monkeys need to be extremely strong, as they must be able to manipulate heavy beams and equipment. They must also be highly agile, with a good sense of balance and an ability to compensate for the movements of a skyscraper or bridge as it shifts in the wind. A steel monkey is also a member of a coordinated team of individuals, and must be attuned to other members of the team.
By law, steel monkeys and other steelworkers must be protected with hard hats, safety harnesses, and other safety measures. However, some steel monkeys eschew harnesses, because they find them cumbersome or frustrating to work with. Others claim that safety harnesses actually impede their safety, preferring to run the risk of a catastrophic fall rather than working around the cumbersome confines of a harness. More and more construction companies recognize the value of safety measures, however, and inspections are regularly carried out in the latticework of high steel to make sure that workers are looking out for themselves and each other.