In his two decades working on New Zealand’s roads, Ed Tuira has almost seen it all. Dealing with fallen trees, debris, potholes and traffic incidents is par for the course for the 52-year-old, who is currently maintaining state highways across the eastern Waikato to keep traffic flowing safely.

Ed has spent the past five years of his career working with Higgins on the East Waikato Network Outcomes Contract. He was recently promoted to foreperson – a role he is growing to enjoy – and given responsibility for leading a crew maintaining highways from Tatuanui to the Kaimai Range and south to State Highway One near Lake Karapiro.

Ed is proud of his Māori heritage (Ngati Rahiri Tungu Tungu and Ngāti Pāoa, both Hauraki-based iwi) and incorporates Te Reo and tikanga on site. He is seen as somewhat of a kaumatua and is highly respected by his crew – many of whom are also Māori.

Unlike some people who go into road maintenance straight out school, it wasn’t until Ed was in his 30s that he decided to make the leap. He had been working as an artist and teacher of wood and bone carving, as well as kapahaka, before taking up a job with a fertiliser company driving forklifts and heavy machinery.

Roading provided an opportunity for a change and a chance to work outdoors each day, with machinery and tools such as plate compactors and chainsaws. It also provided camaraderie – something Ed says is hard to find in a lot of other jobs.

“The experienced guys, the ones who have been in the industry a long time, they’re willing to help others learn.”

Ed spent 15 years in road construction before joining Higgins and moving into road maintenance, and he says the industry is very different now to when he started.

“I’ve been on the roads for probably the best part of 20-odd years now. A lot of things have changed, you know, the way things are taught.

“I remember when I started, you learned on the job and when you made mistakes you found out about it,” he laughs.

“There’s a lot more training involved now, like competency and assessments, just to make sure that people are prepared for the jobs they are doing.”

Management is also more open-minded these days, Ed notes, taking on ideas of workers and allowing them to change things for the better.

Last year, for instance, Ed pitched an innovative idea for a “burns card”, on a lanyard, that has instructions for emergency responders on treating bitumen burns.

“It just came out the blue,” says Ed. “Because many people don’t know how to treat those sorts of incidents, and we didn’t know if the fire brigade or any other emergency services knew how to treat them either.

“So if someone did manage to burn themselves we would lay this card with the person.”

The idea was taken on board by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and the Higgins team on the NOC received a “Recognition of the Month” health and safety award.

“Ben [Ed’s boss] just ran with it, and next thing you know I’m shaking hands and getting awards and taking photos,” he laughs.

Now “burns cards” are included in all on-site Higgins first aid kits in the East Waikato and in many Higgins trucks, provided by Civil Contractors New Zealand.

Ed encourages his crew to come up with ideas to improve processes.

“I’m always open to people in my crew saying, ‘well, you know, would it be easier if we did it like this?’ And if it’s a better way of doing things, we trial it out in the field.”

Industry technology has also improved rapidly during Ed’s career. For instance, crews are now notified of dispatches on their tablets, making it much easier for contractors to schedule in other smaller jobs on the way to another.

He doesn’t miss “those long days” when trenches were dug by hand before people started using machinery more regularly.

“It was hard work all day. Now only a couple of minutes hard work and then the machine takes over.”

But the job still keeps you fit, Ed says. “We cover a lot of kilometres; because another part of our work is to pick up roadside litter.”

He finds the hard work satisfying and the crew regularly receives compliments, particularly from truck drivers.

Ed is happy to see more people entering the industry and developing in their roles. And as Ed Tuira has proven, it’s never too late to take your first step in a new direction.