The People Behind the Canal


Some 30,000 people worked on the giant construction site during the seven years it took to build the canal (11,500 during peak times), which joins the curves of a lake in the middle of the isthmus to join the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Workers, experts, technicians, administrators, accountants, managers and - obviously - engineers and architects all contributed to the expansion of the Panama Canal.
The number of those involved emphasizes how gigantic was the size of the project, for which the human element, the level of professionalism and the organization of the labor force were fundamental in bringing it to its successful conclusion. Building a team, bringing people together for a single purpose, directing people’s commitment within an organizational process - these were the elements sought by Giuseppe Quarta, the Salini Impregilo manager who led Grupo Unidos por el Canal, to bring this complete this complex project.

«It was difficult and ambitious to train all the workers who worked on the project», says Quarta. «Thousands of people, many of them of Panamanian nationality, were introduced to the various professions required to make the site work. It was a difficult job because everyone was expected to be at their most productive within the shortest amount of time».
Some 90% of the workers were hired from Panama to emphasize the country’s sovereignty over the canal. They will take for the rest of the professional lives the skills that they acquired on site. Just like the many suppliers in Panama that – for years – were involved in the project. In order to achieve these results, workers were trained and organized according to a strict programme.

The People Behind the Canal

«I found support from all of my colleagues», says Quarta. «They had a desire to work even under pressure to get the job done. When I arrived, we set ourselves objectives and from then on we respected all of them».
Objectives and a work ethic that start from the beginning of the project, when in August 2009 the first managers of Salini Impregilo arrived on site to find a wild nature. The first challenge was to create the conditions needed to build the canal while at the same protecting the environment. Up to 500 species of animals and other creatures were catalogued by experts and brought to other parts of the jungle in an effort to preserve the biodiversity of the area.

The future challenges were many, including one the final and most difficult operations: to position the sluice gates into their respective niches in both sets of locks. The giant gates standing 60 metres high were placed on platforms running on hundreds of wheels and then moved to the locks, guided remotely by a technician with a joystick. The first sluice gate to be fitted into its concrete niche took three hours of maneuvering.
It was a fundamental step towards completion of the project, just like so many others taken along this adventure. Today’s admiration of the project’s scale comes with the knowledge of having won a battle with the use of technical skill as well as the determination and organization of workers who leant their commitment and talent to the project.

All photos of “The New Panama Canal” Special Issue are copyrighted: Copyright © Edoardo Montaina by Salini-Impregilo