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Jack Hagey, Chief Engineer onboard the Stacey Foss, created the “Hagey Handler,” a tool designed to assist deckhands with heavy or frozen lines.

Foss Maritime Chief Engineer Jack Hagey is the winner of the 2020 Saltchuk President’s Award for Innovation in Safety for creating the “Hagey Handler,” a tool designed to assist deckhands with heavy or frozen lines at Red Dog Mine in Alaska. He said it was his mother who inspired his mechanical ability.

“She was a better mechanic than my dad,” he said. “When my dad was at sea, she had to make repairs herself. I learned a lot from her about basic troubleshooting. From her, I got the gift of being able to look at a piece of equipment, take it apart, and put it back together. She knew her kitchen equipment and laundry equipment inside and out. She knew how to fix things. I can remember as a kid, the dryer quit heating. She opened it all up and found out that the heating element in there, the coil, was broken. We didn’t have any money for a new dryer, so she hooked the wires for the heating element together, plugged it in, turned it back on, and it welded itself back together.

“In 2010, I was headed to Hawaii and Wake Island on the Iver Foss. The heating element went out on the dryer. I opened it up and did the exact same thing. My mom always said that if a man designed it and built it, a man could tear it apart and fix it.”

Hagey grew up wanting to be a farmer. His father, born and raised in the small town of Cove, Oregon, joined the U.S. Navy at 17. Hagey, born in 1957, grew up moving from town to town alongside his three brothers and three sisters, from Whidbey Island, Washington to Castro Valley, California, across the country to Newport, Rhode Island – even Oahu’s North Shore.

When he got out of high school, he went to work in a wrecking yard.

“I slowly moved into plant maintenance,” he said. “I repaired buildings, restaurants. Then an opportunity came along to go up to Red Dog (Mine) as a mechanic. I quit my job on a Friday, and by Tuesday, I was flying to Red Dog.”

Hagey joined Foss in 1999 as a mechanic on the barges. By 2005, he’d earned his Merchant Mariners Document (MMD) and sailed “for a long time” before he stayed in Virginia for a month to earn his Designated Duty Engineer (DDE) 4,000 license.

“It’s not a real big license, but it keeps me working,” he said. “It’s nice to finally have something that shows I have the knowledge in my head.”

The Hagey Handler is held in one hand while it grips a thick line.

‘A clear picture showed up in my head’

Returning to Red Dog Mine, Hagey said he noticed a safety hazard on the barges. Deckhands frequently lean over the side of the barge to grab the heavy, frozen mooring line with their hands.

“I remember thinking to myself at the time that there had to be a better way,” he said. “Then last year, a clear picture showed up in my head: I built a spring-loaded jaw with a handle on it. As you move it down the line, it slides. When you pull it back, it grabs, like the ascender on a climbing rope.”

All he had on board at the time was a steel rod bent into the shape of an “S” hook. He straightened it, re-bent it into the shape he wanted, and sent it up with the deckhand. Using his feedback, Hagey made revisions on his invention, the “Hagey Handler.”

The Hagey Handler is a hand tool that the line handler brings and fits over the line. The line is fed into the “jaws” in a downward motion, forcing the jaws open to secure the often frozen, water-logged line in the “teeth.” The handler can then use the handle to get more leverage and a better position for holding the line, reducing risk on the job.

“The deckhand couldn’t use it to grab the line when the line was frozen. So, I cut little teeth into the edge of the ‘jaws,’ allowing the teeth to bite into the line. It worked.”

Hagey said he didn’t think his invention would go anywhere. After all, he’d never use it himself since he doesn’t go onto the barges anymore. But he decided to build it anyway.

“I couldn’t see it for the longest time, but then the image was clear,” he said. “I have a nice shop at home, and I was able to play around and perfect it. If you reach out with your right hand and make a ‘C’ and you grab something, you have a little bit of strength. But if something else grabs it, you’re able to save your shoulder, and you have a lot more strength. I made two of them, one for each barge. We tied a lanyard onto them so the deckhands don’t lose them in the water.”

Hagey is at work in a hardhat and PFD on the deck of a Foss tug.

‘It’s about personal choices

Hagey’s been married for 35 years and has two sons. He lives back in Cove.

“I’ve talked to people who are like, ‘Oh man, you’re making good money out there’ (at Red Dog). But I’m also away from that cute little blonde six months out of the year. We get a little honeymoon when I go home. We don’t spend our time on the little nitpicky stuff like people who spend every night together.”

Hagey and his wife have two early Ford Broncos.

“I have a 1970, and my wife’s is a 1973 with 83,000 original miles on it. When I’m at home, I work on those. I build stuff in my shop. Working at Red Dog, I haven’t been able to hunt deer since 1999, but I like to hunt. Put meat in the freezer.”

Hagey said he’s most proud of his 34 years of sobriety, his 22 years at Foss, and his two granddaughters. He’s teaching his 11-year-old granddaughter to weld. He said he’s most surprised at the fact that he’s good at what he does.

“I’ve always had personal doubts about my skills and abilities,” he said. “In 2005, Foss sent me to Russia to work on a little rust-bucket boat from Hawaii. We flew over that year, and the boat got towed over. For five or six weeks, we were sometimes without power while I was trying to rebuild it. And I was successful. It taught me that the boats were just a different platform, a different kind of work. But the mechanical fundamentals are the same. It became easier then.”

Focusing on safety, he said, is also getting easier.

“I’m getting it,” he said. “For a number of years, we’ve been told to ‘work safe,’ ‘work safe,’ ‘work safe.’ But what does that mean? When I tell you to ‘work safe,’ what does that mean? We get so inundated sometimes that it goes over our heads. I just ask myself, ‘What am I doing right now this minute that might keep me from going home to my cute little blonde. At the end of the day, it’s about personal choices.

“I’ve worked all my life since I was 13. It’s amazing when I stop to think about it that I’ve been at Foss for 22 years. And that I still look forward to going to work.”

Read the stories of past Saltchuk Safety Award winners and nominees here.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.